Leafs focused on Robertson’s long-term growth over short-term potential

Shawn McKenzie & Chris Johnston discuss Nick Robertson replacing Zach Hyman at practice and how Auston Matthews is rounding into form.

TORONTO — How you frame Nick Robertson’s situation at this bonus Toronto Maple Leafs training camp is key. And if you’re only viewing his performance through the lens of whether he’ll play games during the NHL restart, you may be missing the point.

It’s already abundantly clear head coach Sheldon Keefe has serious reservations about introducing an 18-year-old to his lineup at this juncture.

He designed this two-week sprint towards the playoffs around dialling in the details to battle Columbus and has only once put Robertson in a position that made him look like a potential option. That it came alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander for a Saturday practice and scrimmage was eye-emoji notable … at least until we got the rationale behind the decision.

“It wasn’t about Nick, frankly,” said Keefe. “It was just more about making sure we had consistency throughout the rest of the lines that we wanted to maintain.”

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Robertson subbed in for Zach Hyman, deemed unfit to practice after blocking a shot Friday, and allowed the bottom-six to be kept intact. That’s not a luxury the team had often before the pause and Keefe is hoping to establish some continuity for groups centred by Alexander Kerfoot and Frederik Gauthier with a best-of-five drawing near.

What the coach is not looking to do, evidently, is experiment. He also doesn’t appear too concerned with carving out a spot for Robertson, which is perfectly understandable given how much this experience is likely to pay off for the organization’s top prospect regardless.

Consider where Robertson was in March: Tearing it up in Peterborough and carpet-bombing the Leafs nutritionist and strength coaches with texts looking for information and feedback. Now, even with Phase 3 restrictions in place, he’s drawing on the organization’s vast resources directly, sitting down for 1-on-1 meetings with Keefe and gaining the confidence you get from making plays against bonafide NHL stars during a scrimmage.

He is building a database of proof that he belongs every time he steals the puck from Jason Spezza and scores on a short-handed breakaway, or pressures Justin Holl into a turnover before setting up Matthews for a goal — his two most noteworthy moments from Saturday’s scrimmage.

However, you also get the feeling he’s still navigating the gap from where he’s been to where he’d like to go. The 53rd overall pick from 2019 actually seems more realistic about his chances of making an immediate impact in the Leafs lineup than most of us covering this camp, acknowledging that his relentless effort hasn’t produced the normal number of puck touches he’d like in drills conducted at a NHL pace alongside NHL stars.

“I think I’m going to catch on here pretty quick,” Robertson said earlier this week. “It’s good to be exposed to this now in July whereas the next training camp — whenever that is — I’ll be ready for sure.”

The dynamics around potentially throwing him into playoff games are especially unique considering he didn’t even see exhibition action during his first NHL camp in September. In fact, Robertson barely had time to unpack before being sent back from St. John’s after a handful of practices.

Teams always wrestle with the idea of whether they’re putting a prized prospect in a position to succeed when weighing these decisions.

On one hand, what is there to lose? Robertson is brimming with upside and can be somewhat insulated as, say, the left-winger on the third line. But on the other, every defensive mistake is magnified during the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Leafs are preparing for a tight, physical series against the battle-tested Blue Jackets.

That’s why Keefe seems to be focused on keeping Robertson as a “break glass in case of emergency” option. Letting him get a taste of what’s to come, but only in manageable bites. One day he’ll skate with the reserves — lingering on the ice longer than the other 33 Maple Leafs in camp on Friday afternoon — and the next he’ll see some fill-in reps with the top line.

On Sunday, we’ve already been told he’s likely to be shifted elsewhere in the rotation.

“Every experience we can get for Nick is a positive one for him and if something breaks free and really starts to come together then that’s a positive for both he and us,” said Keefe. “But we’re really working and focusing on getting our team ready.”

Perspective is important here.

Robertson won’t turn 19 until Sept. 11, and is younger now than Matthews, Marner and Nylander were when they made their NHL debuts.

He is also eight inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Pierre Engvall, one of the players he could theoretically elbow out of the lineup. But Engvall has already earned Keefe’s trust while playing for him for three years and winning a Calder Cup together in 2018.

Sure, Robertson is much more likely to make good on a scoring chance, but with so much focus in this camp on defensive responsibility that seems like an area where the Leafs are inclined to sacrifice some skill.

Any number of variables could move up the timetable, starting with illness and/or injury.

We don’t have any idea how long Hyman might be out and there was a scary moment in Saturday’s scrimmage when Nylander crashed into the boards at high speed and was shaken up as he returned to the bench. He stayed in the game, but it was a loud reminder about what can happen even during intra-squad competitions.

But a fully healthy Leafs team doesn’t yet include No. 89 in the lineup and that’s OK. The unexpected circumstances brought on by a pandemic has already given him five weeks of small-group workouts in the Leafs facility and this extra training camp, and that should pay dividends for Toronto even if they’re not immediate.

“Nick is a great player with great potential and a great future ahead,” said Keefe. “We’re extremely excited about him but there’s no timeline for him. This is all part of the plan and part of the process.

“We’re fortunate to have this event and to have him a part of it because we think we’re shortening the runway for him.”

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