TORONTO — Nick Robertson’s sole focus has been on challenging for a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster at the next available opportunity. He just didn’t think it would arrive so soon.
"I thought I was going to get this shot later in the year," Robertson told Sportsnet in late May.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out an Ontario Hockey League season that saw the determined left-winger score 55 goals in 46 games for the Peterborough Petes, but it also delivered him an opportunity to extend that charmed year with the Leafs.
Robertson was among 34 players included on Toronto’s summer training camp roster released Sunday, moving him one step closer to realizing his NHL dream. Teams can bring as many as 28 skaters and 31 players overall into the hub for the league’s return-to-play, which means the odds are on the teenager’s side.
Clues about whether he might play games will be one of the most closely-monitored stories in camp.
It’s a multi-layered decision. The Leafs only have one exhibition game before opening a best-of-five series against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena on Aug. 2 and the 18-year-old Robertson has never even previously played for the team in pre-season. He’d be making a big jump with large stakes.
There is also the future to be mindful of, with the first year of his cost-controlled, entry-level contract eligible to be burned in the event he were to play 10 NHL games during this summer tournament.
However, Robertson also carries the promise of someone who may be able to help tip the scales in the present. The 53rd overall pick from 2019 is good in tight spaces and has shown an obvious scoring knack that could bring some added punch to the bottom six, something the team needs on the left side with Andreas Johnsson still recovering from major knee surgery.
He’s also garnered a reputation as someone in superior physical condition — an area where the Leafs believe they might find an advantage because of the unusual nature of this playoff tournament arriving after a layoff of four-plus months.
"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]," Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said recently. "Nick is a person who is as committed as any that I’ve seen — certainly at that age."
Robertson doesn’t lack for confidence, either.
He wasn’t shy about declaring his intention to crack the lineup after travelling to Toronto to participate in the small-group Phase 2 workouts in June and he’s coming to training camp wearing No. 89 — something no one has done for the Leafs since Alex Mogilny.
His edge comes from possessing a confident, professional mindset.
Since being drafted by the Leafs a little more than a year ago, he’s taken advantage of every available resource a well-heeled organization offers. He joked that he probably "annoyed" the team’s strength coaches by sending them videos of every workout for feedback and exchanged hundreds of texts with nutritionist Margaret Hughes, many of them involving pictures of meals he’d prepared.
It has helped put him in a markedly different position than when he came to his first NHL training camp last September and got sent home from Newfoundland in less than 72 hours without even dressing for an exhibition game.
Now he’s under consideration as an option for the playoffs before the end of that very same season.
"That’s all in the past too, right? I don’t think I’m the same player as I was then," said Robertson. "I think I’m a lot bigger and stronger and faster and more mature as a person as well."
With on-ice workouts set to begin on Monday morning at Ford Performance Centre, here’s a look the Leafs training camp roster:
Mac Hollowell was on the original player list announced by the Maple Leafs but he was later replaced by Nic Petan.