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Nick Robertson has one last shot to lock down a roster spot with the Leafs this year

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
22 days ago
When you look at the Leafs’ organization over the past five years or so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player with a more turbulent tenure than Nick Robertson.
Between bursts of potential, slumps, and injuries, Robertson has found himself in the awkward position of “too good for the AHL, not quite good enough for the NHL” for a while now. It’s not necessarily his fault – it’s more a combination of the aforementioned injuries and the fact that he simply developed too quickly, but it’s the way it is for the Leafs’ 2019 second-rounder right now. After being selected 53rd overall in the draft five years ago, the Pasadena, California native popped off for an absurd 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes in 2019-20 before the COVID pandemic shut his season down. He got an early look with the Maple Leafs, joining their roster for the 2019-20 bubble play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and even scored his first professional goal in that series.
His development hit a pothole after that series ended, unfortunately. Robertson suffered an injury in each of his three seasons following that one – a knee injury in 2020-21, a broken leg in 2021-22, and a shoulder injury in 2022-23 that required surgery. That last one was undoubtedly the biggest gut punch. It looked like he was finally going to take advantage of some open competition early in the season, scoring his first two goals including the overtime winner against his brother Jason and the Dallas Stars, but only a month and change later, he went down awkwardly in a collision with Los Angeles Kings defenceman Matt Roy. A six-week recovery timeline turned into six months when it was discovered that he would need surgery, and he didn’t play another game for the rest of the season.
Entering the 2023-24 season, Robertson once again was the victim of a surplus of forwards competing for ice time and waivers ineligibility. He was assigned to the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Toronto Marlies and wasted no time showing that he believed he should belong in the NHL, scoring five goals en route to 11 points in nine games. He got his first shot with the team in early November and scored two goals along with four points in his first four games. But, if it’s not injuries or overflowing depth holding Robertson back, it’s inconsistency. He only scored one goal in his next 17 games with five points in total during that span, despite getting opportunities in the middle-six following injuries to players like Ryan Reaves. He turned things on in his next seven games, scoring four goals and adding an assist, then scored only once en route to five points in his next 13 games. To date, he has nine goals and 20 points in 42 games.
Following the 2023-24 trade deadline and the acquisitions of Ilya Lyubushkin, Joel Edmundson, and Connor Dewar in the weeks leading up to it, Robertson was assigned to the Marlies on a paper transaction to move cap around. Following the move, he was quoted as being unhappy with his situation. Not necessarily with the Leafs, but with the situation in general. He talked about it last week.
“I understand it, but I’m not going to sit here and say I’m happy. I want to play,” Robertson said. “But I understand my contract situation. Obviously if it wasn’t the way it was, maybe it’d be different situation.” Robertson said.
His comments rubbed some people, including Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, the wrong way. I can understand the argument that he should have kept his mouth shut, put a smile on his face, and said something about how the team’s success was priority number one, but on the other hand, if he was asked about how he feels over being bounced up and down between the Marlies and the Leafs, was he expected to lie? It’s not like he said he felt he deserved to be in there over other players. He wants to play, wants to help the team win and despite his disappointment after being demoted at the time, reaffirmed that he’s focused on staying prepared for when the team calls upon him.
“I’ll just kind of keep my phone on standby and wonder what I’m doing. I have no option but to keep going, because you never know what happens with anybody. And I’m not going to not be ready, because you need to be ready. That’s just how it is. You’re a professional, you’ve got to be ready. I’ve heard that quote a lot this year. So my job is to stay (ready) … Do the things that I’d do as if I was playing, and just be ready if my name is called.”
Well, the hockey gods must have been listening to him when he spoke of his frustrations because, in a cruel turn of events, Calle Jarnkrok hit the injured reserve as quickly as he was activated. After missing five weeks due to a broken knuckle, he had an awkward fall on March 14th against the Philadelphia Flyers and injured his hand again, although it wasn’t specified if his injury was related to the previous one. In a way, it was somewhat positive news for Jarnkrok, given the nature of his fall and the fact that it initially looked like a collarbone injury.
Either way, Jarnkrok is back on the shelf, likely for the next month or so, and just like that, Robertson has another shot, and likely his last, to lock down a spot with the Leafs this season.
This isn’t to say that he’ll never see another game for the Leafs in 2023-24 if he doesn’t light up the scoresheet. Injuries can and will happen, so it’s not impossible that Robertson would see another game if he doesn’t make his mark here, but on the other hand, would the Leafs feel comfortable using him against a team like Boston or Florida who will take every measure to punish you physically if he’s not consistently putting up points?
He’s obviously not taking Jarnkrok’s spot in the lineup when the latter is ready to come back, but it’s not about that. It’s about outworking the likes of Pontus Holmberg, Noah Gregor, Ryan Reaves, and even Bobby McMann for ice time. I can see him being favoured over Gregor, but Sheldon Keefe seems to trust Holmberg on the defensive side more than anybody else that’s technically “on the bubble”, and McMann and Reaves have the edge up on him from a physical standpoint, so it’s not going to be easy. He got off on the right foot in his return to the lineup, scoring a goal in the Leafs’ 5-4 overtime loss to Carolina on Saturday night, and his coach seemed to see it coming.
“To me, he’s played his best hockey when he’s been out of the lineup and has come back in.” Keefe said last Friday. “I’m fully expecting him to make an impact tomorrow”
Robertson skated alongside John Tavares and Matthew Knies in his return to the lineup, but that line likely won’t stick together once Mitch Marner returns from injury. I think Keefe has figured out that his lack of defensive game doesn’t work on the fourth line, so I’d expect him to skate with players of similar offensive ability. If he isn’t able to lock it down, that’s not to say it’s the end of his time in Toronto – the Leafs will need cheap players to round out their forward group once Auston Matthews and William Nylander’s raises kick in, but new general manager Brad Treliving might be more inclined to use him as trade bait depending on how things go.
It’s crunch time for Robertson, and a great way to ensure none of the above happens is to take his game to another level and give Keefe no choice but to leave him in the lineup.

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