8 Maple Leafs notes: Robertson’s ‘mental grind’ intensifies with COVID news

In this edition of Stat of the Nation, Mike Futa discuss all the news around the North Division as teams enter the final stretch of the season.

TORONTO – Whenever things start looking promising for Nick Robertson in 2021, another hurdle gets launched into his path.

The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect survived the trade deadline and showed well in this week’s back-to-back as a surprise insert… only to find himself shuttled onto the NHL’s COVID protocol list on Wednesday as a cautionary measure.

The Toronto Marlies, with whom Robertson was playing last week, have had all their scheduled games through April 21 postponed due to the AHL’s COVID protocol.

For Robertson, it’s been a season of one step up, two steps back.

You have to feel for the kid, who had earned his long-awaited recall to the big club on Monday due to William Nylander’s absence (COVID protocol himself) and Alexander Barabanov’s trade to San Jose.

The gauntlet Robertson has run traces back to opening week.

Robertson sustained a knee injury two minutes and 20 seconds into his first NHL regular-season game back on Jan. 16. He later sat games while battling an oblique injury.

It’s been a slog for the teenager, who missed playing for the gold-medal-winning U.S. world junior squad because he’s been so determined to cut it as an NHLer.

“It was definitely a mental grind, but it’s a blessing in disguise,” said Robertson, sounding optimistic Monday in Montreal. “I’m 19 and it’s something I should go through now. The game is all about highs and lows, and I need to learn how to handle it.”

With no Ontario Hockey League to play in, Robertson impressed at the AHL level, producing three goals and seven assists in 14 games with the Marlies while rehabbing his body.

“He’s a person that has come here and done everything the right way. He’s worked hard and made sure that, within this process, he’s looking to get better in every situation,” Marlies coach Greg Moore said.

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Even in his limited taste of action in the Leafs’ bottom six, Robertson has got his shot off a couple times and feels more confident now that he’s had some seasoning in the run-and-gun AHL.

“It’s a really tough league, and I think I developed my positioning away from the puck,” Robertson said. “As far as reps, too, with the Marlies I got a lot of ice time, and that’s obviously great.

“It was definitely good to be back with the guys.”

Robertson’s diligence on the forecheck has earned the rookie high praise from Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe and his big-league teammates.

“He’s a great kid. Works extremely hard. Has got a great attitude. Loves the game. Wants to be around the guys. Wants to get better. It’s obviously been a tough season for him,” Alexander Kerfoot said Tuesday.

“He played a bit in the bubble last year, so I’m sure his expectations were high. But those things happen. He’s still got the same energy and attitude he’s always had. You can tell when he gets on the ice with the puck on his stick, he can make things happen.

“He’s going to have a bright future.”

Man (dis)advantage

For the first time all season, the Maple Leafs’ power play has tumbled out of the NHL’s top 10. It now ranks 11th (22.5 per cent).

Worse: Toronto’s net power-play percentage, which takes into account short-handed goals surrendered, rates 17th overall at 18.3 per cent.

This is an ugly look for an area this roster should dominate. A deep slump, not a blip.

After Joe Thornton drew a high-sticking double minor on Rasmus Andersson on Tuesday, shots went 2-2 for the next four minutes. Yikes.

“We’re not as in sync as we’d like to be,” John Tavares said.

Their penalty kill finds itself on the wrong side of the median, too. Toronto’s PK ranks 22nd (77 per cent) and its net PK has fallen to 26th overall (78.8 per cent).

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The Leafs have converted on just one of 36 power-play chances over their past 15 games while allowing three short-handed goals in that stretch.

The Leafs have been outscored 11-3 on special teams over the past 16 games. Had Toronto simply gotten a special-teams draw on Monday and Tuesday, it would’ve earned at least two more points.

The optimist says it’s better to endure this slump now than in May.

The pessimist sees a tense group holding meetings, juggling personnel and gripping their sticks to no avail — and wonders if it might be too late by the time they figure it out.

Check the game notes, bud

Scott Sabourin’s 2020-21 stat line with the AHL Marlies: 4 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 P, 22 PIM.

So, it was to the surprise of precisely no one, least of all Milan Lucic, that the Leafs enforcer picked a fight with Calgary Flames bruiser on his 1,000th game.

Remember, the last time Calgary rolled into town, Lucic delivered this crushing hit on Auston Matthews. There was no immediate response.

We see this as a smart lineup decision. The only other candidate to drop the gloves with Lucic would be Wayne Simmonds, whose newly recovered wrist will be needed in the post-season.

When Sabourin left the penalty box after serving his fighting major, the Leafs bench stood up and received him with stick taps and fist bumps. Later, after Sabourin delivered a crushing hit on the forecheck, backup Jack Campbell got up and leaned over the boards to pat him before he could even get through the gate.

“Every day that he’s been around our group, whether it’s training camp or with the taxi squad or what have you, he’s done nothing but work extremely hard and be a good teammate around here. That’s part of it. We’ve been looking to give him an opportunity to play,” Keefe said post-game.

“We thought tonight, given our opponent and who they were and the fact it’s a back-to-back for us, it was as good a time as any. I thought he did his job.

“He was physical, he found a fight and held his own against as tough a customer as there is in the League. Definitely, we’re happy with what he did.”

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The captain is heating up

Absorbing some simmering heat this season for his lack of even-strength production, John Tavares has piled up three goals and five assists for eight points over the past six games — all but one helper at 5-on-5.

Despite the absence of wingman Nylander, Tavares has made his impact felt… and was a pinged post away from scoring the winner Tuesday.

“He’s gotten some pucks in good areas and he’s putting it on the net. I think when he does that and he gets into the slot and just lets it go, doesn’t overthink it and just gets it there, when he gets to those spaces, things seem to go his way,” Keefe said.

“I’ve been answering a lot of questions on John all season, but I’ve felt pretty good about John’s play through most of this season on both sides of the puck. And it’s nice to see him get a little more of a reward in terms of 5-on-5 goals or assists.”

Welcome to load management SZN

When Jason Spezza signed with Toronto in the 2019 off-season, there was a handshake agreement that the club would do its best to rest his vintage legs during back-to-backs.

With the Maple Leafs butting up against the salary ceiling all season, it’s been nearly impossible for Keefe to rest his vets.

Now that Toronto has a seven-point lead on the North Division pack, and some cap relief with Frederik Andersen on LTIR, expect the staff to treat rest as a weapon.

“Our practice time will be very limited over the next little while,” Keefe said.

‘Easy’ decision to trade Foligno to Toronto

The Maple Leafs weren’t the only team in the bidding for the services of former Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. But no one else was willing to give Columbus a first- and a fourth-round pick for the rental.

“Toronto was the best offer, so it was easy. No difficulty there,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen told Writers Block Tuesday.

Like everyone else who speaks about Foligno, Kekalainen raves about his character. Toronto is acquiring a player “made for playoff hockey.”

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Foligno kissed his kids goodbye and packed up to cross the border Tuesday.

“They’re getting a heart-and-soul guy who comes to play every night, every shift. Leaves everything on the ice,” Kekalainen said. “He’s a winner.”

While Foligno said “sorry,” he would not be donning father Mike’s old Northlands bubble helmet for the Blue and White, exec-turned-analyst Mike Futa floated a fun idea: Foligno should strap on the now-extinct bubble bucket for his first warm-up skate.

Do it, Nick.

Fun fact: Foligno, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, and Auston Matthews were teammates prior to the trade. They combined for 14 points but finished fourth place with Team USA at the 2016 world championships.

“He’s an amazing player, obviously, but he’s a tremendous person and leader and a guy that competes every night,” Matthews said.

“He’s a guy you don’t want to go up against because he’s going to compete and battle every single shift. He’s going to help our team out in more ways than one. I’m sure he’s really looking forward to coming home, and we’re looking forward to having him.”

Why Red Lobster?

OK, let’s drill down on the important matters.

When Campbell scooped five pucks out from the back of his net Saturday yet still escaped with his record-breaking 11th consecutive win, 6-5 over the Ottawa Senators, the goalie delivered the line of the night: “I definitely owe the boys a nice Red Lobster dinner, that’s for sure.”

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Hey, I enjoy crab legs and coconut shrimp as much as the next chap. But why would Red Lobster be the celebratory dining destination of young millionaires?

Campbell’s reference was not selected at random.

As the starting goaltender revealed in a fun team-produced Zoom chat with pal Jake Muzzin, he is a massive Happy Gilmore fan. Campbell is prone to spewing quotes from the Adam Sandler classic on the daily.

Hence, the Red Lobster reference…

Auston Matthews is for the children

Early in his Leafs career, Matthews recalled a story of his uncle Bill giving him tickets to his first Arizona Coyotes game when the future star was only a couple of years old. Bill passed from cystic fibrosis shortly after, which helped fuel Matthews’ enthusiasm for visiting patients at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital.

In conjunction with the Leafs’ Hockey Fights Cancer night Saturday, Matthews wore custom Sick Kids skates and used a Sick Kids stick against the Senators.

“A couple months back, I came up with the idea of honouring Sick Kids,” Matthews explained.

“Our team has a great relationship with them. I’ve been lucky and fortunate enough to build a relationship with them as well, starting my first year. So, I thought it was a very appropriate night to honour them and the amazing work they do for kids.”

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