One thing that’s different with the 2021-22 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs is that there could be space for a youngster to rise onto the roster and – hopefully – stay there. The particular youngster I’m thinking about is Nick Robertson. He’s special enough to make a case for that to happen, even though it didn’t happen last season.
In fact, last season seemed to be pretty much doom and gloom for the hard-working youngster. Let’s hope this season is different.
Robertson’s Chance on the Roster Didn’t Last Long: Rotten Luck
Last season, general manager Kyle Dubas announced at training camp that he didn’t feel he gave Robertson a fair chance during the 2019-20 season. He noted that he was determined to allow Robertson a good chance to make the team during training camp. Certainly, Robertson had earned that chance; or, he had at least earned a good look.
After the Maple Leafs were unceremoniously dumped by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019-20 postseason “play-in” round, Robertson hadn’t gone home to Michigan to be with his family. Instead, he decided his NHL hockey career would be better served if he stayed in Toronto to practice. And he did; mostly on his own.
Remember, he’s just 18 years old, but he had a team to help take care of him. So, at first he stayed with different players on the team – Jake Muzzin’s family for one – and then moved into an AirB&B where he lived alone. All this just to take advantage of a chance to make the roster.
In fact, Robertson made the team coming out of training camp. He even started the second game of the 2020-21 season. Sadly, the joy of being in the line-up was short-lived. Robertson was injured within two minutes of the game when he was hit along the boards.
It took him some time to heal, but then he moved to the Toronto Marlies. That he could even play with the Marlies was because, during the 2019-20 season, the rules changed because of COVID-19. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been allowed.
So, Robertson and the Maple Leafs took advantage. After he had healed from his first injury, Robertson suited up for the Marlies. Sadly, yet again the injury bug hit. Ultimately, Robertson played only 21 AHL games because two additional injuries – an oblique injury and a concussion – took him off the ice.
It was a season of frustration.
What Will the Maple Leafs Do with Robertson This Season?
Robertson is now 19-years-old and he’s still listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. He’s still a hard worker, and he’s still a great talent. He also plays fearlessly, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Obviously, he’s got to learn how to use his size better (which is something often said about larger players). In this case, Robertson might have to learn when NOT to push the physical envelope. Although today’s NHL is a bit more forgiving for small(ish) players, he’s still must learn to be wise enough to protect himself.
So, what will happen with Robertson this season? There’s a chance the team will be extra cautious with Robertson. Because he’ll turn 20 years old in September, he’ll be able to play in the AHL. He’s also waiver-exempt, which means the team can move him up and down without fear of losing him to another team.
The smart money says that, unless Robertson has a great training camp and shows he’s head-and-shoulders above anyone else (no short-joke intended), he’ll likely start the 2021-22 season with the Marlies. Smart money also says that the organization’s choice comes down to (a) play Robertson top-line Marlies’ minutes or (b) give him less ice time in a smaller, bottom-six, role on the Maple Leafs’ roster.
If that really is the choice, perhaps playing with the Marlies is the better of the two choices.
Is There Another Choice with the Maple Leafs?
With Zach Hyman departed now for the Edmonton Oilers, there might be another choice. There is space for Robertson in a top-six role as a left-winger on either of the top two lines. Both lines are currently auditioning for that job.
If the team wants a Hyman clone, that isn’t Robertson. You’d never confuse Hyman for Robertson – their games are totally different. However, does the top-six left-winger have to have a corner puck digger?
For example, speaking of the Oilers, there’s a similar-size youngster named Kailer Yamamoto. Yamamoto is now 22-years-old but who, at 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds is small compared to Robertson. However, Yamamoto has found a home as a winger beside Leon Draisaitl in the Oiler’s top-six. If he can play there, why not Robertson?
I’m hoping it’s time for the Maple Leafs to create space to develop the younger players within it’s system who will one day become the stars on this team. That includes Robertson, but it also includes players like Rasmus Sandin.
I hope this is the season Robertson gets a chance to play regularly in the Maple Leafs’ lineup. I like him both because he’s a skillful player and because he’s representative of a number of younger players who possess incredible potential.
What Do You Do If You’re Kyle Dubas of Head Coach Sheldon Keefe?
That’s the question: What do you do if you’re Kyle Dubas or head coach Sheldon Keefe? Your dilemma is a good dilemma, but it’s still a dilemma.
I believe the answer is to make time and space for Robertson to grow – with the Maple Leafs. He’s special enough to treat that way.
When an opportunity this rich presents itself, the Maple Leafs as an organization shouldn’t miss it. Here’s hoping they don’t with Nick Robertson.
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