Leafs’ Robertson continues to find way as decision on his role looms

Morgan Rielly had a goal and two assists, and Alexander Kerfoot scored twice to help the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 win over the Canadiens in their return to NHL action.

TORONTO — For everyone else this was the start of the new normal.

For Nick Robertson, it was just new.

You couldn’t possibly have dreamed up the circumstances that led to the 18-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs winger pulling on an NHL sweater in a game for the first time. And then to do it in the empty din of Scotiabank Arena at the end of a sweaty July day, well, let’s call that memorable.

Or just plain weird.

Robertson picked up a secondary assist in Tuesday’s 4-2 exhibition victory over the Montreal Canadiens, but more notably left management with an interesting decision ahead of the qualifying series with Columbus: Is he ready now?

“We’re going to continue to just digest all of this here over the next few days. We’ll make that decision,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who had previously labelled Robertson the wild card of training camp. “I wouldn’t make any assumptions on Nick or some of the other positions in our lineup because we just haven’t made the decisions ourselves.”

Typically, teams are looking for reasons not to force a young prospect into their lineup when pondering this question. But the Leafs have increasingly seemed to be talking themselves into the idea of tossing Robertson directly into a tournament without precedent in the history of the NHL.

Fortune favours the bold, and all that.

It’s not that Robertson hasn’t looked up to the task. His effort, his puck-hounding abilities and his shot scream big league. But in introducing his higher ceiling to the roster, the Leafs may also be opening themselves up to learning experiences you might prefer he get early in the regular season rather than a key moment of a best-of-five.

And still, that may be deemed worth it if you believe he’ll find his way quickly. He certainly hasn’t looked out of place in these last few weeks and helped keep the puck moving in the right direction across 10 minutes of ice time against the Canadiens.

“He’s a very impressive young kid,” linemate Alexander Kerfoot said. “To step right into this situation, obviously never playing at this level and having only a couple weeks to practice, I think he’s been outstanding in camp and you can just see whenever he’s on the ice how good he is, how good he’s going to be.

“He’s a lot of fun to play with.”

The fact Robertson has put himself in this position underlines what a transformational year it’s been. He was part of the first wave of Leafs training camp cuts in September, sent home from St. John’s two days before the first exhibition game was even played with an entry-level contract as the only consolation.

But after a 55-goal campaign in the Ontario Hockey League and a four-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he earned a spot alongside Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen for the Leafs’ lone exhibition contest before the playoffs.

It was a nationally televised game with no more than 400 people in the building at that.

In a sloppy affair, in which the puck bounded around like a tennis ball, Robertson looked to be finding his way. He took a holding penalty and lost control of the puck on a glorious scoring chance in the first period, but made a stronger account from there — earning a takeaway with determination on one sequence before picking up his assist on a solid offensive zone shift that saw Kerfoot tip home his second goal of the game.

“Just how hard he competes I think is a huge asset to him,” said Morgan Rielly, a standout for Toronto in the game. “A player like that, a young guy coming in, I think to have that flame inside to improve is good for us and I think he’s done a great job.”

The way Keefe managed the bench suggested the lineup decision lies somewhere else in the leadup to Game 1 against the Blue Jackets on Sunday night. The Leafs coach mixed 13th forward Frederik Gauthier around on a fourth line that featured Pierre Engvall between veterans Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza.

That could bode well for Robertson, the youngest of the 736 players added to NHL rosters for this summer restart.

He’s aiming to become the first 18-year-old to make his debut in the playoffs since Jarome Iginla on April 21, 1996 — more than five years before Robertson was even born.

Robertson would also be the first Maple Leaf to debut at that age in the post-season since Gaye Stewart in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, and the first 18-year-old to play for the Leafs in the playoffs since Ted Kennedy in 1944.

You get the picture: This is not your run-of-the-mill situation.

But then again, is anything normal right now?

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