Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
The rise of Robertson, Cowboy’s a killer, big week for the Marlies: Leafs Prospect Roundup
By Nick Richard3 months ago
Nick Robertson’s difficult road to the NHL has been well-documented by this point. Between the pandemic and a long list of serious injuries, the Leafs’ second-rounder from the 2019 draft had suited up in just 82 games between the Leafs and Marlies over the last three seasons combined. His offensive potential was plain to see, but he wasn’t able to put it on display with any level of consistency to carve out a full-time job in the NHL.
Healthy once again, Robertson was assigned to the Marlies to begin the season. He didn’t pop in training camp the way he had the season prior, and the idea was for him to get his game back on track by playing big minutes in the AHL. It would have been easy for Robertson to be discouraged, but, as he always has, he continued to put the work in, and now both he and the Leafs are reaping the rewards.
After piling up five goals and six assists in nine games with the Marlies, Robertson was recalled to the NHL and made his season debut against the Lightning last Monday. Robertson’s recall was part of a substantial shakeup to the Leafs’ forward group, and the young sniper wasted little time making his mark on a new-look third line alongside Max Domi and Calle Järnkrok. The trio appeared to have instant chemistry – particularly Domi and Robertson – and they teamed up for the tying goal in the third period before the Leafs went on to win in overtime.
Robertson added his first goal of the season the next time out against Ottawa, again tying the game in the third period before things fell apart for the Leafs late in the game. The play doesn’t happen without a spectacular backhanded saucer pass from Domi, but it wasn’t a play that everyone finishes with the ease that Robertson did either.
The third line kept it going against Calgary on Friday, as Robertson and Domi combined to set up Järnkrok off the rush to put the Leafs ahead in the first period. Robertson extended his point streak on Saturday, notching an insurance marker in the third period to help Toronto secure an impressive victory over the Canucks. For those keeping track, that’s two goals and two assists for Robertson in four games since rejoining the Leafs.
The addition of Robertson and Domi’s subsequent move to centre has brought new life to Toronto’s bottom six. With the team starving for offence from anybody beyond the core-four forwards, the Leafs’ new third line has combined for five goals and 13 points, helping spur the club to a 3-1-0 record in the four games since Robertson’s recall. They have caused problems for opposing teams with their speed and tenacity chasing down loose pucks, with all three players having the skill to make plays under pressure. They’ve been dangerous in transition, but they’ve also been able to generate some sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Robertson, in particular, is still playing with the same energy and pace we’ve always seen, but there are elements of composure and confidence that haven’t been there in the past.
Robertson has also done well to play with less recklessness and not put himself in harm’s way as often, but it’s still the NHL, and Ian Cole reminded him on Saturday that he’s still going to get hit. The veteran blueliner caught him with a big open-ice hit in the first period, but he bounced right back to his feet as Domi was flying towards Cole with his gloves off. For an undersized player who has been injured as frequently as Robertson has, it was extremely encouraging to see him shake off a big hit and continue to impact the game until the final buzzer.
It’s been just four games, and the injury concerns will continue to hover over him until he proves he can stay healthy for an extended period, but Robertson has made an immediate impact for the Leafs. He has made it clear in short order that he has no intentions of returning to the Marlies, and the job is unquestionably his to lose.
Having Robertson step up and become a legitimate offensive threat in their top nine is a huge development for a Leafs team that has struggled to integrate homegrown talent over the last number of years. Along with Matthew Knies, the Leafs now have essentially two rookies (Robertson doesn’t technically qualify, but let’s be real here) who have the potential to provide not only secondary offence but surplus value on their cap hits. For a top-heavy team like the Leafs, getting contributions from players like Knies and Robertson is crucial to success.
It feels like I’ve been writing about Robertson in this space forever now, but it appears that time is nearing its end as he continues to establish himself with each passing game at the NHL level. For a kid who has faced so much adversity, it’s been great to see him earn this opportunity and take advantage of it.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool:
- Not to be outdone, Knies also had a productive week after moving to the Leafs’ first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He opened the scoring just minutes into his first game after the move and added two assists as the Leafs completed another dramatic comeback against Tampa Bay. He was held off the scoresheet against Ottawa and Calgary but scored his fourth goal of the season against Vancouver on Saturday and is now up to eight points in 15 games. Knies is a great fit alongside Matthews and Marner with his relentless puck pursuit and ability to make plays in congested areas. He has been a bright spot for the Leafs in his rookie season and will only continue to grow with experience.
- Fraser Minten was held off the scoresheet in his first game after returning to the Kamloops Blazers, but he’s gotten on the board in each of the four games since. His latest outing saw him notch three assists in a 6-3 loss to Spokane, bringing him to a goal and six assists in five games, but he’s probably owed more than that. Minten has fired at least six shots on goal in all five games this season but has only found the back of the net once on 36 total shots on net. It’s merely a matter of time before the pucks start going in for him if he continues to generate chances the way he has thus far.
- Easton Cowan has been torching the OHL all season, and he continued his torrid pace this past week. He tallied three assists in a 10-7 barnburner against Windsor on Thursday, picked up a goal and an assist in an OT win over Owen Sound on Friday, and added an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 shutout victory over Guelph. Cowan is now riding a seven-game point streak and is up to eight goals and 16 assists in just 13 games on the season. He has been a force in all situations for the Knights, and he’s been a monster on the penalty kill, already with five shorthanded points. It’s still early, and sustaining this level of production will be difficult, but after registering 53 points in 68 games a season ago, the Leafs’ 2023 first-round pick is on pace for a ridiculous 117 points in 63 games this season. Safe to say the Leafs are pleased with the early returns on the pick.
- Nick Moldenhauer’s role has fluctuated in the early part of his freshman season at Michigan, but he may have earned some traction this past weekend. After going three games without a point, he scored a goal and added an assist in Saturday’s shootout victory against Minnesota. Moldenhauer now has two goals and four assists in his first 12 games at the collegiate level.
- Last week’s edition of the Prospect Roundup was headlined by Dennis Hildeby picking up his first AHL shutout, and well, he recorded his second AHL shutout the next time out. The man known as “The Hildebeast” turned away all 23 shots he faced against Grand Rapids on Saturday and now sports an impressive 1.26 GAA and .950 SV% through four games this season. There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Marlies crease, but things could open up this week as the Leafs are granted an exemption to bring a third goaltender on their two-game Swedish excursion. Bringing Hildeby back home, even to serve as the third goaltender, would be a great moment for the young netminder, and his play has warranted it, but the best move might be for Hildeby to remain with the Marlies and continue to build off of his strong start.
- He’s flown under the radar a little bit, but Alex Steeves has been on an absolute tear for the Marlies. He is currently riding a nine-game point streak, and after four points in three games this past week, Steeves is up to eight goals and six assists in just 12 games. Bobby McMann has gotten the first crack at the fourth line spot that has been (at least temporarily) vacated by Ryan Reaves, and got off to a good start with a pair of assists against Vancouver on Saturday, but Steeves is knocking on the door. If McMann should falter or an injury opens up another spot on the wing, Steeves should be the next man up.
- Nick Abruzzese has also been a big part of the Marlies’ offence recently, and has tallied eight points on his current four-game point streak. He started with an assist last Saturday, scored a goal against Milwaukee on Wednesday, notched another goal and a pair of helpers against Grand Rapids on Friday, and then added three more assists in Saturday’s rematch. Abruzzese has totalled three goals and eight assists in 12 games so far this season.
- It was a slow start to the season for Dmitry Ovchinnikov, but that all changed this past week. Toronto’s fifth-round pick from the 2020 draft was scoreless through his first four games of the season but recorded his first AHL hat trick in Friday’s 7-3 win over Grand Rapids and followed it up with a goal and an assist against the same opponent on Saturday. Ovchinnikov has started to climb the depth chart and now has five points in six games.
- Artur Akhtyamov rebounded nicely after allowing three goals on just five shots his last time out back on November 4th. His club fell by a score of 3-0 to fellow Leafs prospect Nikita Grebyonkin and Metallurg on Saturday, but Akhtyamov stopped 44 of the 47 shots he faced. His playing time and performance have both dipped in recent weeks but Akhtyamov still owns an impressive .923 SV% through 16 appearances at the KHL level this season.
Statistics from EliteProspects.com & CHL.ca
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