“Make the team.”
When you approach Nick Robertson’s dressing-room stall and ask his goal for this season — already the touted prospect’s fourth in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization — his response is as snappy and direct as one of his wicked wrist shots.
That whippy weapon has already earned him three goals and a primary assist this pre-season and made him the first star of Friday’s 6-3 exhibition victory over the Ottawa Senators in neutral site Belleville, Ont.
More important than a September stat sheet, however, is the jolt of encouragement the 21-year-old gets from seeing that twine bend.
What Robertson has learned about himself through his three disjointed and injury-strained pro campaigns through a pandemic is that the mental grind is “100 per cent” more difficult than the physical one.
When he’s feeling good about his game, things just flow. When he gets in his head and starts to read too much into his training camp linemates, well, he can get in his own way.
His sweet game-winning snipe against Montreal Wednesday may have been meaningless to the NHL at large, but it meant something to the kid’s mindset.
“Kind of calms the nerves down and gets you feeling good about your game, and I think you play more confident,” explains Robertson, before following up with a three-point effort Friday. “I think this whole game is mental.
“If someone told me I was coming in and had a full-time spot in Toronto or whatever, I think (I’d) play a little better.”
Alas, nothing is promised in pro sports – not even to 55-goal scorers in junior or affable workhorses making a team-friendly $796,667 on their entry-level contracts.
What GM Kyle Dubas did do to ease Robertson’s mind was assure him that he’d get a legitimate chance in camp this fall, that he’d mix the lines often and give him shifts with other offensively skilled forwards.
“You have more of an opportunity this one now, for sure. I mean, camps before, I’ve been so much shorter than I wanted to be,” Robertson says. “Camp’s going good so far. It just seems like a bigger opportunity for me this camp.”
In an effort to make the most of that look, Robertson subscribed to the Daft Punk off-season workout regime: “Bigger, stronger, faster,” he says, was the mission.
More pointedly: “thicker.”
His still-developing body needed a sturdier foundation so he could battle in corners and become more difficult to get knocked off the puck. That comes with maturity and hours in the gym.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has lauded Robertson for pushing through checks and staying on his feet, and the 5-foot-9 Robertson has picked the brain of the 5-foot-11 Alexander Kerfoot for tips on how to thrive as a small forward.
“These practices for me are also a tryout,” says Robertson.
The left wing says he is approaching every day at camp like he’s already a full-time Leaf.
So far, that mentality is serving him well.
And with two left-shot locks (John Tavares and Pierre Engvall) unavailable due to injury, Robertson’s odds of making the cut have improved.
Working against him, however, is the fact he doesn’t need to clear waivers to be sent down to the American Hockey League.
The same cannot be said for other bubble forwards in the mix like Zach Aston-Reese, Adam Gaudette, Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford.
Keefe has cautioned that salary-cap gymnastics may impact the Opening Night roster.
No matter. Robertson is still dead set and focused on shooting his shot and hitting his target.
“I know there’s a lot of competitiveness in the locker room, but fortunately we all kind of know each other,” he says, “On the ice, it’s nothing personal. Just business.”
Middle six takes shape
With less than two weeks until the games count for real, and the first line chiselled in stone, Keefe’s makeshift middle six is starting to take form in the absence of John Tavares (oblique injury) and Pierre Engvall (foot/ankle):
William Nylander — Alexander Kerfoot — Calle Järnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese — David Kämpf — Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Don’t Judge a man until you walk in his clown shoes
Auston Matthews stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 208 pounds, but even he felt dwarfed in the presence of Aaron Judge this week.
The entire Maple Leafs’ top line got an opportunity to meet the Yankees home-run king Tuesday at Rogers Centre, where Matthews threw out the first pitch.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that small next to somebody before, but it’s really cool to meet a guy who’s at the top of his sport.” Matthews said.
Imagine how Mitch Marner felt.
“He’s a big man. The trainer there was telling me to wear size 17 boots. When he was running the bases there, it looked like clown shoes to me,” says Marner. The winger was happy to share that Judge catches the odd Rangers game and has an appreciation for hockey.
“He watched Auston a little bit last year with his remarkable year and putting up 60. They’re in the 60 Club together. They were talking about it… Me and Mike (Bunting) were in the background for that one.”
Simmonds approves of Defenceman Marner
“Mitchy’s an unbelievable skater, right? He transitions from forward to backward, sideways, on his head — he can skate any direction,” says Wayne Simmonds, who doesn’t view the idea as farfetched.
“He’d be more of a rover. I think that’s where the game is going. You see a lot of position-less hockey where the D sometimes lead the rush or stay in the rush, and the forwards are left at the blueline to protect.”
One-Timers: Robertson on unsigned brother Jason in Dallas: “He’s doing good. He’s just waiting for contract coming up. Just sitting, waiting. I talk to him every day. We play video games and talk about where the bad guys are. We don’t talk about his contract.”… Fraser Minten, the Leafs’ first pick in the 2022 draft, was receiving rave reviews from Auston Matthews and John Tavares during his first NHL training camp. Unfortunately, the 18-year-old had his experience chopped short with a left wrist injury…. D-men down: Carl Dahlström will require shoulder surgery and is out a minimum of six months. Jordie Benn is out a minimum of three weeks with a groin injury the Leafs feared was worse…. Adam Gaudette looks to be recovering just fine from his shoulder injury: “It’s something I could probably play through if needed, but now’s not the time to push through injuries,” he says…. Look for Rasmus Sandin on the ice next week and expect a significant round of roster cuts with the AHL Marlies opening their camp.