Quick Shifts: ‘Wild card’ Nick Robertson pushes fate to the wire

Sportsnet's Chris Johnston and Shawn MacKenzie discuss Ilya Mikheyev's impressive camp and what the Toronto Maple Leafs can expect heading into the bubble.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Today’s column marks the final one of the pause. Real hockey is upon us. Believe it.

1. Coach Sheldon Keefe’s message to Nick Robertson with Game 1 only a week away? We’re saying there’s a chance.

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t made a final decision on the 18-year-old Ontario Hockey League terror quite yet, but throughout this Phase 3 fantasy camp, Robertson has gotten to try out pretty much everything except Frederik Andersen’s new pads.

The top power-play unit, the top six, the third line, the fourth line — Robertson has seen shifts with them all.

“Every other player that’s in this camp has had experience and has played games in the NHL, played in the minors and all those things. They know what to expect from those experiences,” Keefe explained.

“Nick is the wild card here, in terms of what he can bring and how quickly he can adapt and adjust. We have to be able to give him those opportunities to be able to see how quickly we can get him up to speed.

“It’s been really positive. Early on, it was a little bit slower for him, but it seems the more experience and opportunity we’ve given him he’s done well with it.”

Absolutely, a competitive professional camp like this one is much better for the prospect’s development than roller-skating around cones and pounding protein shakes back home in California, but despite Keefe’s consistent tempering of the Robertson hype, a guy like, say, third-line left wing Pierre Engvall must be at least wondering if his job is in danger.

Engvall, 24, is a big body (six-foot-five, 214 pounds) used to checking grown men. He kills penalties and is defensively sound. Plus, he has the ability to slide into the middle and take draws. Electing to go with Robertson instead would signal an all-in on trying to outscore the Columbus Blue Jackets with all four lines.

“I’m pretty comfortable with Pierre and the job that he’s done in that spot, but we’re trying to take advantage of the days we have and give Nick those opportunities,” Keefe said.

Keefe stresses that Toronto’s lone exhibition game, Tuesday “at” Montreal, will help refine Robertson’s status. Teams have convinced the league to allow 13 forwards and seven defencemen to participate in the tune-up contests so as to complete their tryouts. (Side note: Expect multiple teams to trot out both goalies in their exhibition.)

Even though Robertson’s fate will come down to the wire, he has already left an impression on his teammates and could be next man up should an injury arise or the bottom six take a beating.

“I’ve really liked the progression that he’s shown. There are other things at play here, of course. There’s his play, his development through all this, and then there’s also decisions to make on the other players who’ve played for us up until the pause,” Keefe said Thursday night. “Then making a decision based on all those factors on what’s going to help us best prepare to win Game 1.”

Feels like yesterday that Auston Matthews was the hungry new kid at camp all the pros were fielding questions about. Now he’s the one pumping the teenager’s tires.

“He’s really tenacious,” Matthews said of Robertson. “He’s hard on the puck. He’s obviously got a really hard shot. He likes to shoot it, and rightfully so — he gets it off quick. He works extremely hard.

“He’s gonna be a really good player for us, regardless if he plays in these playoffs or in the future. I think he’s got a really bright future in this organization. It’s exciting for him, and it’s exciting for us as well.”

2. Ilya Mikheyev was the runaway MVP (as voted by attending reporters) of the Maple Leafs’ five-game Phase 3 scrimmage series, capping off his head-turning performance with a hat trick in Thursday evening’s contest. (Souperman came within a rung post of hat trick in Sunday’s scrimmage, too.)

But a few other wingers’ names kept popping up as reset camp standouts.

We asked Matthews who’s caught his eye, and he gave some love to a guy who’s been riding that thin line between the AHL and NHL his whole career.

“You know, I was actually thinking about that on the bench today. Last couple scrimmages Nic Petan has looked really good. The puck’s following him around out there,” Matthews said. “It just seems like he had the puck a lot, was making plays and was really involved.”

Kyle Clifford echoed the universal praise for Mikheyev and Robertson, but kicked off his list with Kasperi Kapanen, who had begun coming on in the second half of the regular season.

Kapanen, who nicknamed he and Clifford the “Smash Bros,” also got a nice nod from coach Keefe as the player who has picked up the pace and made himself known.

“If I look at his progression through the first three days of camp on to this … second phase of this camp, Kappy has really raised his level. The way that he’s played the game in terms of using his speed, getting on the puck, just having second and third efforts on the puck,” Keefe praised. “Those are the kind of things we need to see from him. He’s a real difference-maker for us when he does that, and I’ve been happy to see that. It’s a real positive sign for us.”

3. The biggest advantage for the eight confirmed playoff teams could be in net.

While the other 16 starting goalies will be thrown directly into the fire after four-and-a-half months off and pressured to win games, easing back into action with some round-robin contests should serve goaltenders on the top teams well.

Tandem-based teams like Columbus, Calgary, Nashville and Edmonton won’t have much room for error when it comes to selecting their most dialled-in starter. While a club like Vegas, which has already qualified for the Sweet 16, has three games to experiment.

“We’ve got two starting goalies, so we’re going to play them both,” said Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer, who has Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury at his disposal. “I haven’t decided on any of the specifics of that, but both guys are going to play and then we’ll go day to day from there.”

Keep an eye out for quick hooks in the play-in round, as there can be no patience for a goalie to find his groove.

4. Again, no wingers finished among the final three vote-getters for the Frank J. Selke Trophy. This makes 17 years and counting since a winger has received the ultimate acknowledgement for his two-way game (Jere Lehtinen, 2003).

It’s an award Toronto’s Mitch Marner has made it be known he’d like to earn his way into contention for one day.

As far as the defensive arts are concerned, Marner draws inspiration from Ryan O’Reilly, the 2019 Selke champ who has a shot at repeating.

The two were teammates on Team Canada’s silver-medal-winning 2017 world championship squad, and Marner was blown away by O’Reilly’s professionalism and practice habits.

“He’s a guy that doesn’t get as much love as he should. And he’s a guy that every single night plays his heart out. He does a lot of things right. He plays every aspect of the game right. Plays penalty kill, power play. If you need a goal, if you gotta stop a goal from going in, he’s always on the ice,” Marner said. “So, he’s a guy I’ve been watching a lot and really enjoy watching.”

5. Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine delivered a quick one-liner when asked about his involvement and thoughts on the NHL and PA’s new collective bargaining agreement: “I just work here.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Maple Leafs rep Zach Hyman took it upon himself to get heavily involved in the talks. Quarantined in his condo, he had extra time on his hands and was keen to educate himself on the business of the game.

“If something affects you, I want to be able to learn about the process behind it and learn about potentially making it better,” explained Hyman. “I was fortunate to be part of the process and be on that negotiation committee and be in the loop.”

Hyman would hop on multiple calls daily as the negotiations intensified. After having discussions with guys who’d been involved in the 2013 labour dispute, he gained an understanding for the importance of player involvement in the union and was happy to keep other Leafs in the loop and relaying their feedback to the owners.

“For us, it was about stability and making sure that our league is in a spot to prosper over the next six years,” Hyman said. “To provide certainty for players and their families was really important for us, so I think that the deal reflects that.”

6. As you may have heard, for safety reasons, all player interviews will be conducted via Zoom and no reporters will be granted face-to-face interactions with the team. It’s been that way throughout Phase 3 as well.

Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom believes this arrangement will alleviate some pressure off the young Canucks.

“It’s for sure a lot different than it could have been, especially in a Canadian market,” Markstrom said. “In previous years, when you’ve been in the playoffs, the locker room is pretty much full of media. We’re not going to have that right now.

“That’s going to be good for our team. Nothing against you guys, (but) it makes it a little bit easier for a lot of young players who have never been in playoff games that play for us.”

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7. Anyone else pleasantly surprised by the league announcement Monday that, among all the players returning for Phase 3 of camp, only two more positive COVID-19 tests were recorded?

With 18 rosters training in the U.S., those results are fantastic.

Further, on Thursday evening, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there were no more additional confirmed positives this week. Great encouragement as clubs fly to the bubbles Sunday.

“That’s a great sign heading into the hub,” Leafs forward Alexander Kerfoot said. “It speaks volumes to how committed everyone is across the league. I can only speak to our team, but we’re doing everything we can. The rules are there for a reason, and we’re pretty much at home and at the rink.

“So, it really limits the interactions with the outside world and limits the ability to contract the virus.”

8. While the majority of NHLers will be stuffing Xboxes and PlayStations into their bubble luggage, John Tavares likes to read books before going to sleep.

The latest page-turner on Tavares’ nightstand is Ryan Holiday’s Stillness Is Key, which draws from Stoic and Buddhist philosophy to illustrate the power of slowing down in getting ahead.

Tavares said he leans on nonfiction, self-improvement and philosophical texts to not aid his game but his family and personal life as a whole.

“Beliefs and who you are and obviously what you do every day as a hockey player — your commitment and desire for that — I think they’re all kind of in sync and in synergy. They all kind of work together and affect one another, and it’s how can I continue to be better in all areas and learn more and continue to challenge myself to improve who I am as a person, as a hockey player,” Tavares explained.

“I read and look a lot of stuff to improve my game. I’ve always been curious and always wondered what’s made great hockey players or great athletes or why people are successful. But now, especially having a family and where I’m at now in my life, having a better sense of improving all aspects of my life and how they kind of work together is important.”

Dr. Ellen Choi is a Ryerson professor and social psychologist specializing in the effects of mindfulness training as it relates to performance under pressure.

We informed her of Tavares’ reading material, and she sent this list of further reading for athletes looking to gain a mental edge: George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete; Phil Jackson, Sacred Hoops; Daniel Goleman, Focus; Michael Singer, The Surrender Experiment; Gary Mack, Mind Gym; Mark Divine, The Unbeatable Mind; Vishen Lahkiani, The Code of the Extraordinary Mind; Amy Saltzman, A Still Quiet Place for Athletes: Mindfulness Skills for Achieving Peak Performance and Finding Flow in Sports and Life.

9. A return-to-play topic that has popped up during radio hits is ice quality. How will the league keep the playing surfaces in Toronto and Edmonton fresh in August while hosting triple-headers and multiple overtimes?

For starters, there will be no morning skates at Scotiabank Arena or Rogers Place in the early going, and the main arenas will be used exclusively for games. That’s where the practice facilities come into play.

But the main benefit for summer ice will be the absence of fans. Maintenance crews won’t be battling the body heat of 19,000 people, and the barn doors won’t be swinging open, thus keeping the worst enemy of good ice — humidity — at bay.

Further, unlike past playoff runs in certain cities, there will be no need to flip-flop between the ice pad and a basketball court.

Edmonton and Toronto each laid fresh ice in the hubs this week.

“We have no issues, no concerns about ice conditions,” NHL director of hockey ops Colin Campbell assured Friday.

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

10. Meanwhile… being eliminated early doesn’t look so horrible.

This 1,000 Game Club gift for the Sharks’ Marc-Edouard Vlasic is something else. BRB, asking Santa for a Lift Foil for Christmas.

11. Quietly, it says much about how the Maple Leafs view AHL defenceman Teemu Kivihalme that after just one run with the Marlies (a) he was invited to Phase 3’s training camp and (b) he was awarded a two-year, two-way contract extension this week when so many of the organization’s pending RFAs have yet to be taken care of.

Yes, Kivilhame is already 25, but the Finn’s cap-friendly deal and the late-blooming of fellow Minnesota resident Justin Holl hints that he could be a depth option in the future.

“In my time with him at the Marlies, I really started to appreciate a lot of things about his game, in particular how he uses his skating, which is really, really strong. It’s his greatest asset and utilizing it to defend, which is something we’ve talked about him trying to do,” Keefe explained.

“He’s always kind of seen himself as a guy that skates the puck and is involved on the offence and all that part of it. There’s a lot of things that can happen with guys who skate as well as he does that can really become an asset in defending. Calle Rosen is similar in that nature with his development. We like that about him, and you can never have enough depth on defence.”

12. Count me among the immediate fans of the Seattle Kraken, players or no players.

From the carbon-footprint-free Climate Pledge Arena to the hiring of the NHL’s first female pro scout (Cammi Granato) to the new Twitter bio (“now that we have a name, we’re strategizing all the ways to draft your favourite player”) to the historic repurposing of the Key Arena roof, the Kraken have our full attention.

I’m loving the colour scheme and logo, especially the secondary mark, which subtly incorporates the Space Needle into an anchor. Bravo.

“It’s pretty awesome that Seattle’s gonna get a good hockey team. It’s a great sports city. I grew up a pretty big Kevin Durant fan when he was drafted there, so now it’s exciting to have more variety of sports there,” said Matthews, at little risk of getting exposed in the expansion draft.

“The jerseys and everything, they kind of went similar with the Golden Knights — a little flashy, but I think it’s a pretty nice.”

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