Maple Leafs framing camp as competition for playoff roster

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie discuss 18-year-old Nick Robertson's potential on the Maple Leaf and if he will be able to crack the roster when games start less than three weeks from now.

TORONTO – In an ordinary year, a healthy, established NHL player contributing to good team would face minimal risk of losing his job to a less-experienced player immediately before a playoff tournament.

Breaking: This is no ordinary year.

When coach Sheldon Keefe gathered his Toronto Maple Leafs Monday at the outset of Training Camp: Part Deux, he issued a firm message. Tryouts start now.

“We’ve got competition here for spots,” Keefe said. “To say that we were happy or satisfied with the way we were playing and where we were at as a team before the pause is just not the case. So, we’re challenging our players to push each other.”

Now, we’re pretty sure you should feel safe using permanent ink to scratch numbers like 34, 91 and 16 into your lineup card. But the taxi-squad invitees — headlined by Nick Robertson (locally known as the Greatest Talent to Never Play an NHL Shift) and featuring determined Marlies standouts Kenny Agostino, Adam Brooks and Nic Petan — aren’t just waiting curbside hoping for a fare.

Those hopefuls were among the first arrivals for Phase 2’s voluntary workouts, with Americans like Robertson and Agostino arriving weeks in advance to serve their mandatory 14-quarantine on this side of the border.

“My big thing is, you control what you can control in this game, and you just got to be ready for whenever that opportunity comes about,” an eager Agostino told me in late May before driving up from New Jersey. “You never know what the next year and a half could bring.”

Perhaps this theme of internal competition is being promoted to light a fire under some inconsistent third-line forwards and to accelerate the urgency necessary to leap into a best-of-five showdown versus super-motivator John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets on Aug. 2.

But Robertson & Co. are chasing that dangled carrot in earnest.

The sports-mad locals are starving for hockey and hope, so it makes sense the 18-year-old sniper’s practice highlights have already gone viral. He stripped our best defenceman of the puck! He lasered a couple by our best goalie!

“He’s a guy that’s going to continue to push. That’s just his nature,” Morgan Rielly says of Robertson. “So, it’s always good to have people like that on board.”

John Tavares marvels how the puck seems to follow Robertson around. Frederik Andersen is impressed by Robertson’s shiftiness and the release off his blade. GM Kyle Dubas zeroes in on the teenager’s mindset and approach.

“He wasn’t going to do what a lot of young players do, which is kinda tiptoe around on the ice and try to figure out what his place is. He’s going to come with the mindset that he’s going to leave it all out here and try to make the team,” Dubas explained on Tim and Sid Tuesday evening. “As some of the older, more veteran players sort of get back into their top form, how he responds to that is what we’re really looking for.”

What’s it going to take? Let’s just say the tie goes to the veteran.

“He needs to really show it, make it obvious that he’s ready,” Keefe said. “And he’s got some time to be able to do that.”

Not a ton.

The Leafs’ lone exhibition game (versus Montreal on July 28) is speeding at us faster than a forecheck. Starting Sunday, the players and bubble staff will enter a modified quarantine in which their lives must take place at home and at work (Ford Performance Centre) only.

Toronto has taken great pains to steepen its ramp-up to the tournament.

The franchise drew the most bodies of any franchise to its practice facility for Phase 2 and jumped directly into intensified, short-bench scrimmages (two lines aside) on Day 1 of camp. By Day 2, Keefe had COVID-clear officials participating on the ice to mimic the real deal.

By way of comparison, the Jackets aren’t scheduling their first scrimmage until later this week. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has yet to practice with his linemates. Boston superstar David Pastrnak didn’t join the main group until Wednesday. The virus has already thrown a wrench into the Pittsburgh and Tampa camps.

Absolutely, the Maple Leafs might get out-checked or out-defended. They could fumble the special-teams battle or not get enough saves. But the strict mandate is they won’t get out-prepared or out-conditioned.

Heck, on Wednesday they drop the puck on Game 1 of their own internal best-of-five series: Team Andersen vs. Team Matthews. Furthermore, the media will vote on a “Phase 3 Scrimmage Most Valuable Player” award. Seriously.

“Every rep that we have has got to be as close to game-like as we can, and the conditioning part of it creates some additional challenges because it’s really hard to do when you’re tired,” Keefe said. “Our hope is — whether it’s the two-line or the three-line effect at scrimmages — that by the time we get rolling with four lines, it feels a lot easier. Our hope is by the time we play the real games, it feels easier than anything we’ve gone through [at] this camp.”

And that is where the internal drive of Robertson, Agostino, Brooks and the other long shots becomes vital.

“These guys have been committed to come in and put in the work, so they’re here to challenge and compete,” Keefe said. “They’re either pushing to earn spots that are available if others don’t pull their weight, or they’re pushing just to make everyone better through their work in practices — and that’s the biggest thing for us.”

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