Before the start of the preseason, it was safe to assume that Nick Robertson would end up with the Marlies to begin the upcoming campaign.
After all, the Leafs remain in a tight bind in regards to their salary cap and will need to make some difficult decisions in regard to who makes their opening night lineup. Combined with Robertson not needing to pass through waivers should he be sent down, it made logical sense to presume that he was likely to start off in the AHL and get called up later on if needed.
With about a week to go until the start of the regular season, things have taken a drastic turn for the better. Robertson has catapulted himself up the NHL scoring leaders in the preseason and has gotten better with each passing game. He is playing like a man who wants to earn a spot on the roster and has looked exceptional doing so.
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There are just two more preseason games left and he is going to make the Leafs have a tougher time deciding whether to leave him on the NHL roster or send him back down to the AHL.
In his most recent outing against the Canadiens, he was very noticeable all night long at both ends of the ice. Robertson was aggressive on the forecheck to set up scoring chances, flying in to deny the threat, and drawing a penalty with his speed and tenacity. His efforts were rewarded with a three-assist night (in just 11:34 of ice time) where he did not look out of place on a line with William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot.
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After four preseason games, Robertson has recorded three goals, four assists, and seven points. That has him tied with Matt Duchene and Timo Meier for the NHL lead in preseason scoring. While the advanced metrics don’t include his game against the Senators in Bellville, they are nonetheless impressive all across the board at 5v5.
CF%
FF%
SF%
GF%
XGF%
SCF%
HDCF%
HDGF%
PDO
54.90
56.76
53.57
100
53.89
50.00
55.56
100
1.200
The sample size is obviously small and preseason numbers are not biblical proof that a player will have success once the regular season begins, but what this proves is that Robertson is playing inspiring hockey right now and doing everything in his power to prove to Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe that he is deserving of a longer look. He has done it once before during the 2020 Bubble and he has what it takes to do it again.
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Getting a major jolt from within the organization would be beneficial for the Leafs in the immediate and long-term future, and Robertson is demonstrating that he could be part of the first wave of players to do exactly that.
However, one thing that stands in his way is the Leafs’ salary situation because they sit nearly $3 million over the cap.
With injuries up front to integral pieces like John Tavares and Pierre Engvall and at least one of them being placed on LTIR, there will certainly be an opening on the forward core. This will add some temporary relief for the first month of the season but will only delay an inevitable cap crunch once the aforementioned players plus Timothy Liljegren are cleared to return. Zach-Aston Reese has seemingly earned a regular contract with the Leafs which could be finalized in the coming days, Denis Malgin has had a solid preseason of his own, and players like Pontus Holmberg and Alex Steeves have also been impressive. That’s without considering all of the established players lower on the depth chart who remain in consideration for a spot such as Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, and Adam Gaudette.
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In that aforementioned group of fringe players, he is easily the most skilled and talented of the bunch which should rank him highly for consideration for one of the final roster slots. The sheer fact he remains waiver-exempt, for the time being, is something the Leafs will view as the deciding factor for who makes the cut. After all, Toronto is almost certainly bound to lose some quality pieces on waivers in the coming days and they don’t want to risk having their depth be depleted unnecessarily.
Robertson only recently turned 21 years old and him potentially not cracking the Leafs’ roster should not be seen as a failure but as a by-product of how loaded the team is up-front.
Having said that, it’s hard to deny that he is doing everything he can to earn a longer look in the NHL and make the Leafs have a tough time determining where to put him at the end of camp.
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The 2022 preseason has seen him elevate his game where he demonstrated a willingness to battle for loose pucks, unafraid to absorb contact and make smart decisions with the puck in all three areas of the ice. Offensively, he is getting into the right areas of the ice and has strong awareness to either set up his teammates or get position for a scoring chance. Robertson’s elite shot has always been one of his biggest strengths and he was earning high praise from Auston Matthews about his progression. Simply put, he has made the most of the opportunities given to him and has shown that he looks like an NHL player at this stage of his development.
When the Leafs make their decision on where to put Robertson after the preseason wraps up, they will need to ensure that he is set up for success. They could go with the expected route of assigning him to the AHL because he is waiver-exempt and see him dominate before calling him back up when needed. But if he keeps playing as he has in the preseason thus far, he may be better off staying in the NHL full-time and granting him a chance to take the next steps in his career to become an impactful player.
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At the very least, Robertson has done everything he can to be in consideration for a longer look to begin the 2022-23 season.
Salary information from PuckPedia.com.