Why Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson thinks he’s ready for his NHL shot

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas joins a conference call to discuss what the benefit is for both Nick Robertson and the club to have the OHL sniper on the club’s expanded playoff roster.

TORONTO — It’s one thing to get your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment in the middle of a global pandemic.

For Nick Robertson, the call-up from the Toronto Maple Leafs also comes at a time when he’s gone more than two months without putting on skates. That unthinkably long stretch should end at some point next week once he finishes serving a 14-day quarantine and the Leafs officially reopen their training facility for small-group workouts, but on the surface these don’t seem like ideal circumstances to put your best foot forward.

“We’ll see when I get back on the ice,” Robertson said Wednesday. “Maybe I’ve forgotten how to skate.”

He was kidding, of course, and perhaps the best explanation for why he’s one of seven or eight players now being considered for inclusion on the Leafs’ expanded playoff roster is because Robertson believes he’s made gains since a 55-goal season with the Peterborough Petes came to a screeching halt in March.

The 18-year-old returned home to Sierra Madre, Calif., when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and started adding some much-needed muscle mass to his five-foot-nine frame. He worked out with brother Jason, a Dallas Stars prospect, and started taking the intensity to a whole other level last month when Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas tabbed him to be ready for a potential NHL restart.

That extra training, plus his breakthrough campaign in the Ontario Hockey League, are sources of confidence for Robertson. He doesn’t see any resemblance between the player he is today and the one who lasted 72 hours before being sent home from Leafs training camp in September.

“I think that I’ve enhanced a lot of my off-ice performance now which can help me with my on-ice,” said Robertson. “Overall I think I’m ready. We’ll see what the coaching staff and what Toronto wants, but just personally — mentally and physically — I think I’m there.

“We’ll see as it goes.”

The short visit to Newfoundland for training camp still proved fruitful since it resulted in Robertson signing an entry-level contract and gaining access to the kind of resources he could only dream of before getting drafted 53rd overall last June.

He estimates that he’s exchanged more than 100 texts with Leafs nutritionist Margaret Hughes, often sending her pictures of his meals for feedback or picking her brain about supplements. He also routinely reaches out to the organization’s strength coaches and has sent video of every different type of exercise he’s doing during quarantine.

“I think they kind of heard from me more than they wanted to,” said Robertson. “I don’t doubt they get annoyed with me.”

Perhaps, but it also helped put him in position to get his NHL opportunity a little sooner than expected.

Dubas cited Robertson’s superior conditioning level as one of the main reasons he’s been called to Toronto now. His massive scoring performance for the Petes would have earned him some favour no matter what, but the left-winger is being considered as a legitimate depth option for big NHL games this summer because of his all-around dedication to the craft.

“The commitment to your fitness level as an individual and as a team is going to have such a major, major impact on how you perform coming back from [the COVID-19 pause],” said Dubas. “Nick is a person who is as committed as any that I’ve seen — certainly at that age — and I know what he’s been doing since he’s been back home in Los Angeles, and quarantining at home, and I know his commitment to being in the best possible shape that he can be.

“And that combined with his talent and ability makes me believe that he’ll give a good run not only just to be here, but to potentially be on the roster.”

Getting a chance to spend some time with an NHL team is one Robertson plans to cherish, no matter what happens from here. He hasn’t even been in Toronto’s practice facility since last summer’s rookie camp and figures the gravity of the situation will hit him once he returns as an official member of the Leafs.

Robertson is currently staying with family friends in Windsor, Ont., after making his way up to Canada last Thursday to start serving the country’s mandatory 14-day quarantine and plans to travel to Toronto once that’s completed.

It marks the beginning of a new adventure.

Yes, he’s more than three months away from celebrating his 19th birthday and, yes, he’s a left-winger trying to make his way in an organization blessed with strong forward depth. But Robertson’s mind also drifts to the short note Dubas sent to all of the extra players about showing up ready to play important games for the Leafs because the unusual nature of this situation might deem it necessary.

“I know I’m prepared and he told us to be prepared,” said Robertson. “You’ve got to expect the unexpected, so that’s what I’m definitely thinking of.”

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