Can Nick Robertson be the X-Factor the Maple Leafs Need To Move Forward?

We currently find ourselves starring down the barrel of a possible four month pause in the 2019/2020 NHL season. An unfinished chapter in this long book of the Leafs era. I cannot remember a season since maybe the Burke era that has had such a disappointing narrative surrounding the team. Unfortunately, my urge to talk about this team has taken over my will to focus on other non-Leafs related things so let us dig in.

A week before the NHL put a halt on their season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Brendan Shanahan spoke with TSN and was saying that the Leafs are ‘trying to develop into an elite team’. Although his answer were in the context of the high variance in on-ice performance of the current roster… I wanted to dig deeper into the meaning of this quote and how it pertains to other parts of the organization. I look at the Tampa Bay Lightning as the perfect example of this even though they haven’t been able to hoist Lord Stanley with this core. However, there are many different steps to take in becoming an elite team like the Tampa.

  1. Quite frankly the easiest one is to get some luck with the lottery balls and hit on your top draft picks and have a homegrown core to build around.
  2. Attract free agents to come sign with your team at discounted rate compared to their market value.
  3. Continue to make trades that improve the roster built around your core players.

On paper, I felt every move Dubas made during his tenure was a well-calculated risk that aligned with the 3 steps mentioned above. All signs pointed to this team moving into the upper echelon of the NHL this season. Yet, the inconsistencies of the club’s play have led to more questions than answers as the Leafs have been and will continue to fight for a playoff spot (barring the regular season resumes). We all know, that nothing sounds the alarms more in Toronto than the possibility of missing the playoffs after trading away their 1st round pick.

Enter in Nick Robertson, the Leafs 2nd round draft choice in 2019 taken 53rd overall. This was the Leafs first pick in the 2019 Draft after Dubas sent their 1st rounder in a package that brought in newly extended Jake Muzzin.

Robertson has been defying the odds quite literally since the day he was born. Everyone remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001, and while these tragic attacks were going on the Robertson family were dealing with their own situation with the 2-month premature birth of their son.

Now almost 19 years later, Nick has put together one of the greatest seasons an 18-year-old has ever had in the OHL with 55 goals and 31 assists for 86 Points in 46 games while averaging over 5.5 shots per game. The season Robertson put together ranks 3rd All-Time in Goals Per Game for an 18-year-old or younger player in the OHL with 1.196. He has put himself in the company of Eric Lindros who is well-known for being the most dominate player in junior hockey history. But most importantly, he has garnered the attention of not just the Maple Leafs brass but the entire hockey world as a legit shot to play in the NHL next season.

Having a homegrown core like Matthews, Marner and Nylander become as successful as a core of Stamkos, Hedman and Vasilevsky would be ideal. But it is the likes of Point, Kucherov, and Cirelli that have put Tampa Bay over the top. What do these 3 players have in common? They were all selected in the 2nd and 3rd round and have developed into elite-level talents.

No question, Robertson has given Leafs fans a reason to believe that he can be that type of player for the club down the road. But in the more immediate sense, the question lies as to where he will be playing hockey during the 2020/2021 season? The three options I see available are (assuming he gets his 9 game stint at the beginning):

  1. Stay in the NHL
  2. Sent back to the OHL with the potential to get recalled after the 2021 World Junior Championships.
  3. Move to a European league with the potential to get recalled after the 2021 World Junior Championships.

All three avenues should be in play in my opinion and frankly, the choice will rely on Robertson even more so than Leafs management. Analyzing them on the whole shows there are benefits and drawbacks to each one.

If Robertson can find his bearings during training camp and look comfortable in a middle-six role during his 9 game try-out stint in the NHL before his ELC kicks in, than I see absolutely no reason not to keep him in the lineup full-time. This is my ideal scenario for the team as it makes a player like Johnsson and possibly even Engvall expendable via trade depending on some other transactions in the off-season. Those that follow me on Twitter know I will fight for Kapanen’s spot on this team until the end of time, and if Robertson can find a spot on this team maybe it will help others realize that the depth on LW and drop off in talent is far less than that on the RW. I see a potential Top 9 of:

Hyman-Matthews-Nylander
Mikheyev-Tavares-Marner
Robertson-Kerfoot-Kapanen

However, as I am sure we are all aware, it is one hurdle to make the NHL but it is an entirely different beast to stay there especially for a teenager. If Robertson is not able to find some semblance of a scoring touch in the NHL, I would say it is best the Leafs don’t waste a year of his ELC becoming a 3rd Line checker. This would lead to the avenue of going back to the OHL, or if they felt Nick has outgrown that opportunity or if they feel Peterborough won’t be as competitive as they were this season… the Leafs could get really creative and have Robertson sign with an European club team that they feel they have a tight relationship with like say Rögle BK in the SHL.

Overall, it should be quite clear to Leafs Nation that Nick Robertson will play a huge part in this team’s fortunes moving forward. If the Leafs can continue to provide success stories of players being drafted outside the 1st round like the Lightning, it will allow even more flexibility to management on the trade front as they can continue to replenish roster spots with cheaper options.

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