Analyzing Nick Robertson’s exhibition game and the tough choice ahead

Toronto Maple Leafs Nick Robertson speaks about his confidence level after his first scrimmage, while his head coach Sheldon Keefe also recognizes the winger's high level of play.

Heading into Toronto’s exhibition game versus Montreal, most roster decisions for their upcoming series versus Columbus were set — outside of Nick Robertson’s role, of course. I don’t need to prime you much for who he is — he’s been a story for a while now — so just a quick refresher for those who haven’t been neck-deep in hockey all summer.

Robertson is a 2019 second-round draft pick. He is 18 years old. He’s a kid who just scored 55 times in 46 junior games. A tenacious, hard worker. He’s 5-foot-9, but a heavy shooter and hungry. Inexperienced. He’s lots of things.

Most of all though, he’s tempting for the Leafs, because there’s no doubt he’d help them create offence in certain spots. And hey, offence is good. While we’re speaking of good, it’s not impossible to see him as a major contributor next season, so if they don’t dress him this year — and lose by a scant margin — there will surely be retrospective doubt about their decision-making.

The problem for any young talent, though, is there’s a learning curve and at the NHL level the those lessons aren’t offered with kid gloves — let alone during the playoffs of a congested and bizarre year. They slap you in the mouth so you figure out where not to stick your lips next time, which is big-picture helpful, but that doesn’t change the fact you’d be getting metaphorically slapped in the mouth in a very public high-pressure situation.

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Surely the Leafs were hoping Tuesday that Robertson’s play would make a decision for them so they could figure out what to do with their remaining roster spots.

If he was really good, he’d be in (and I get the sense they’ve been hoping for this outcome). That would leave a fourth line centre spot for Frederik Gauthier or Pierre Engvall (that’s another debate unto itself — Engvall is a more threatening PKer, ‘Goat’ the more experienced centre.) If Robertson was bad, both the aforementioned 6-foot-5 penalty killers would be in, and Robertson would be on the outside, waiting for an injury or for the series to go awry.

Instead, he was something else on Tuesday, and we still have questions. He was just OK, but in a unique way.

What I don’t want to do is nitpick simple errors (like two neutral zone misplays) and over-praise where things went well (like a nice pass for a secondary assist). I wanted to find moments that made me believe it will work this season for him, or that tell us maybe it’s going to take some more time.

Were the decision mine going into the play-in round, I’d have Robertson in the press box to start. Sheldon Keefe has said he needs to see Robertson looking comfortable and capable, and I saw too many instances in his 10 minutes of ice time where he was cold-eliminated from the play, no matter how quickly he popped back up like a puppy ready to re-engage.

My conclusion comes from moments like this below where he took contact. We’ve seen small, young players have success in a very big league before — I’m thinking of stars like Patrick Kane and Mitch Marner here — but those players play a game that exists outside contact. They don’t get hit, they exist in the seams. Robertson wants to engage, and while he does so with all the ferocity he has, sometimes raw size still wins.

Yes he’s outnumbered and in a tough spot above, but we see bigger players able to hold the puck in their feet, get hit and buy time for help — or at least avoid turning back into pressure where there isn’t support. It doesn’t take much to snuff Robertson out and take the puck just yet, which could be a huge issue against a big Columbus team that’s excellent defensively.

The Leafs are going to be fighting for inches, and those battles are tough to win when your sweater is covered in snow.

Even after Robertson’s best chance of the game, it wasn’t so much his miss that I noticed (since he’s a proven finisher who’ll find his way there), but it was what happened after. He takes contact, is rubbed out, and it’s the other team’s puck.

Robertson showed himself well a number of times. Once on a forecheck he came up with a puck that led to a low-to-high pass in the O-zone for the Leafs. His speed and effort were present. He scrapped hard out there. Nobody’s worried he isn’t going to be a very good NHLer one day.

But hockey is still very much a contact sport, and playoff hockey is another animal yet. There’s grabbing and pulling and huge people playing at their competitive best. If this were a roster decision Columbus were making — a team that finished 28th in the NHL in scoring going up against a not-very-physical playoff opponent — it might be different. But for the Leafs, scoring is not a problem. Nobody did it more in the entire NHL than them after Sheldon Keefe took over.

What Toronto needs is versatility (don’t forget their PK buried them in the playoffs against Boston last year), and they’ll need to keep moving forward through the thick forest of size and quality defence Columbus is likely to put forth. Engvall is huge and skates like the wind. Gauthier wins draws and defends as a priority. Almost nothing happens either way when he’s out there — it’s not such a bad thing to have that option in certain situations.

I can see Robertson playing Game 1. I can see Robertson scoring in the series if he plays. What I don’t see happening is the Leafs playing 20-some playoff games this year and Robertson not experiencing a long spell of struggles. The Leafs may not have to contend with that as much if they consistently play Engvall, another young guy they recently extended for two years because they like what he brings, as well. He won a Calder Cup with Keefe and Dubas, don’t forget, as did Gauthier.

This isn’t a referendum on what Nick Robertson will be. It’s a decision about what he’ll be on Sunday, versus what their other options are. I have no sense which way the team will end up going, but I know which way I lean.


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