TLN’s 2023 Offseason Leafs Prospect Rankings: #4 Nick Robertson
Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
By Jon Steitzer23 days ago
We have updated the criteria from previous editions of TLN’s prospect rankings regarding who is considered a “prospect” for the purpose of this exercise. Rather than hard and fast limits on age or NHL games played, our group decided on a more nuanced approach to include any reasonably young player who is either under contract with the Leafs or on the club’s reserve list, who has not yet established himself as a full-time NHLer. This includes players such as Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll, who made strong impressions in limited NHL action last season and are expected to make the 2023-24 opening day roster but does not include late-bloomer Bobby McMann, who will also be vying for an NHL roster spot heading into his age-27 season.
TheLeafsNation would also like to acknowledge and honor the memory of 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov who tragically passed away after a courageous and inspiring battle against cancer. We offer our sincerest condolences to Rodion’s teammates, friends, and family in this difficult time.
Is Nick Robertson possibly the Leafs most talented prospect or is he someone they should be trying to move on from if there is any interest? There is a pretty wide range of opinion on an elite junior goal scorer who has struggled with injuries since day one of turning pro. In three pro seasons Robertson has maxed out at 37 games played, last year he was scheduled for surgery 17 games in. Things haven’t gone as hoped for a player who looked like a second round steal for the Leafs. To complicate things slightly his brother has broken out as a star in the NHL and that is a tough comparison to live with. So where are with Robertson today? That’s what we’ll explore below but the main thing is he has upside that is hard to overlook.
So let’s take the injuries out of the equation for now and start with what Nick Robertson does very well and what he needs to work on.
Robertson has an excellent wrist shot. Not a Phil Kessel wrist shot but one that at least warrants me saying the name Phil Kessel while talking about this skill. The shot has served Robertson well in the OHL and even in the AHL, but when it comes to his time in the NHL there is something to be said for him becoming a bit more selective about when he shoots. Far too many Jason Blake/Matthew Lombardi specials have been fired into the goaltender’s chest protector shortly after Robertson enters the offensive zone. A lot of this can be remedied by Robertson shooting lower and potentially creating rebound opportunities or finding another outlet. The fact that Robertson has often been the offensively driven player on his bottom six lines probably has led him to believe he has to be the shooter and finding him someone he can build offensive chemistry with would probably be a big plus for him.
There’s also something to be said for Nick Robertson’s speed, which is respectable in a North/South sense. There aren’t going to be a lot of displays of agility, sharp cuts one way or the other, but in a straight line Nick Robertson will have no problem keeping up with his linemates or possibly look fast compared to Max Domi or John Tavares. Robertson will be a bit of a work in progress, but he isn’t starting from scratch and given that the Leafs have moved away from heavily relying on speed, this won’t be a barrier to him being in the lineup.
There is also something to be said for Robertson’s tenacity. He’s been aggressive in puck pursuits and and isn’t shy about heading into the corners. The issue with Robertson is that his size and strength doesn’t serve him well in these pursuits and that’s part of the way we’ll be talking about Robertson’s injury history in a bit. You don’t want to see Robertson lose this element of his game but there needs to be a smarter approach employed as for the most part it’s about praising his efforts not being pleased with the results.
The one barrier I haven’t talked about is Robertson’s defensive game. Simply put, it’s non-existent and that’s not too surprising for a smaller forward who excelled as a goal scorer in junior. He had one great dimension and teams don’t often push to add another one. Robertson has seen a bit of time on the penalty kill, but this is less about him having defensive ability and more about the fact that most penalty killing can be simplified to work for any player and Robertson has enough straight line speed to keep the defence honest and earn himself the occasional chance.
So where does all of this leave us with Nick Robertson? Well… in what we’ve seen of him in the AHL he’s probably too good for that competition. He’s easily a top six player that will thrive in the AHL and that’s definitely not where the Leafs want him. In the NHL, to date he’s shown that he needs linemates that make sense for him. He wants to be the shooter and has done best when put with players who will get him the puck in optimal situations or are capable of capitalizing on the pucks he throws at the net. Until recently this has meant he was a top six or bust type player to be successful, but with a bit more offensive depth on the Leafs this season a sheltered bottom six scoring line could be the best fit for him, assuming they can put some size and defensive acumen next to Robertson and Domi.
That brings us around to the injury history for Robertson and the reality that it has limited his development opportunities, and the Leafs are still very much at square one when it comes to finding out what they can get out of Robertson without the luxury of saying he’s only 19, 20, or 21 anymore. With an expiring contract Robertson needs to not only take in every last drop of player development time during training camp, but he needs to approach the game with the realization that he is not his 6’3″ brother and some areas of the ice require an approach that isn’t shouting “LEEEROY JENKINS” at the top of his lungs and charging in. It always seems unfair to say that a player needs to show that they can stay healthy, but reality is that is a big missing piece for Robertson.
It would be nice if this is the season that Robertson gets a proper full look in the NHL with all the ups and downs that go along with that. It’s entirely possible we still see him bounce back and forth between the NHL and AHL this year because there will be times that skill development should be taking precedence over contributing secondary offence in the NHL and despite not truly being a rookie, expectations for Robertson this year need to mirror that of a player is getting their first real look.
While expectations and optimism around Robertson has dropped off in the past few seasons the reality is that he is still the best prospect the Leafs have when it comes to having a top six goal scorer in their system. And with one year left on his contract it won’t hurt the Leafs to see whether they can tap into that upside.
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