'He has the hunger': Maple Leafs' Robertson confident he’s ready for NHL spotlight

Maple Leafs rookie Nick Robertson says he's feeling good heading into the team's rookie camp, is looking forward to getting as many reps as he can ahead of the NHL training camp, and says he's confident in himself that he is an NHL caliber player.

TORONTO — Nick Robertson is ready to go again.

After another year that saw injuries slow his ascent, the 21-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs prospect was back flying around the ice at the Ford Performance Centre in Etobicoke, Ont., on Wednesday preparing to suit up for yet another prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., this week — and another bid to become the Maple Leafs’ x-factor.

“It’s just another opportunity to get some game reps,” Robertson said after practice wrapped up. “I think I’ve been off about three months or so, and I definitely want to be in game shape when it really matters, going into pre-season and going into camp with the Leafs.”

The 2019 second-round pick has little to prove against his fellow blue-and-white prospects, his true competition set to take the ice at that main training camp down the line. But Robertson is well-aware of the eyes that will be on him in Traverse City watching to see how he handles his role as a veteran youngster.

“It’s definitely [about] playing the right way. I’m definitely going to play a lot more minutes, be counted on in more of a leadership role now,” he said of his goals for the tournament, which runs Thursday to Monday. “I definitely want to put that expectation and pressure on myself to do well and play well.”

For assistant coach Manny Malhotra, who’s set to serve as head coach for the Traverse City tournament squad, it’s precisely those types of boxes he and his staff will be expecting the young Maple Leafs to check.

“The big thing for us in camp is we want to see their competitive nature,” Malhotra said. “How are they going to compete? Do they have the ability to challenge for spots? Do they take the information and apply it immediately in games? It’s that hockey IQ. We’re looking for them to perform at their best and to show us what they’re capable of doing.”

As for Robertson, Malhotra said the young winger’s desire to find progress in Traverse City has been clear already.

“Just seeing him on Day 1 and the last couple days, he’s prepared himself well. He looks sharp,” the coach said. “You can see that he has the hunger to want to perform and succeed with his goals this year. My role in this Traverse City camp is to best prepare guys like him, guys like Alex Steeves — guys that are looking to make that next step — just make sure they’re ready for main camp and to perform at their best.”

It’s been an off-season of toil and progress for Robertson after a 2021-22 campaign that saw him battle more injuries, produce at a point-per-game pace over a 28-game stretch with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies last season, and tally his first NHL regular season goal during a 10-game run with the big club.

With his skill out on the sheet already undeniable, the work this summer was concentrated in the gym.

“Getting bigger and stronger,” he said of his off-season focus this time around. “I think I’ve gotten a little thicker in the legs and the upper body, working on being stable on the ice. … At one point in the summer I was weighing about 185, and then I kind of simmered down. I think the main focus sometimes as a smaller guy is you’ve got to add weight, but I think for me, I just added thickness, I added more foundation.

“I did better in my bike test than I’ve ever done before, so my numbers have definitely significantly gone through the roof.”

As he looks to take the next step in his career, there may be no better mentor for young Robertson than the man who will lead the bench for this four-game slate in Traverse City. Who better to learn from than a former first-round pick who himself had to grind through some slow starts in the big leagues, some months down in the minors, before turning himself into an everyday NHLer — and sticking there for 16 years?

Few have a better understanding than Malhotra of the need to push, grow and adapt to finally find a way into that coveted life out on the ice, under the lights. And the key to unlocking that next step, in Malhotra’s view, is about more than simply stacking highlight-reel plays.

“Obviously everybody that’s coming to camp has the ability to play hockey really well,” the coach said with a grin. “So I think the biggest thing for being a pro would be consistency. Just maintaining that level of professionalism, that peak performance level, on a day-to-day basis, and not having those valleys and peaks in the way you play, number one.

"Number two would just be understanding the game — applying systems, positionally being in the right place at the right time, and making the plays that you’re expected to make.”

Robertson will get another chance to prove he can bring that consistency, that pro-level awareness, starting Thursday, when Toronto’s prospects will face the Dallas Stars’ young guns. Matchups against prospects from the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings will follow, before the 21-year-old can move on to Toronto’s main camp, and into the pre-season.

Whether this month-long stretch ends with Robertson still in a Maple Leafs sweater or another trip back to the AHL, he’s keeping his focus solely on the process.

“I think, for me, it’s just doing what I can and just playing the way I can,” he said of the path ahead. “I know I’m confident in myself, that I am that calibre of player.”

Maple Leafs assistant general manager Ryan Hardy, who’s overseeing the Traverse City squad, tends to agree.

“If you look at last season in particular, he played 28 games in the American League and scored 16 goals,” Hardy said of the organization’s young sniper. “That’s a 40-goal clip, for a kid that just turned [21] the other day. That’s unbelievable. He’s extremely driven, he’s a young man that loves hockey, so I think he’s pretty much knocking on the doorstep.”

And so it comes down to another prospect tournament, another training camp, another pre-season. Another chance for Robertson to show the Maple Leafs brass that he’s the player he believes he is — and the player they believe he is, too.

“You know, every year I would say, ‘This is my year.’ Every year I’m trying to make the team. Even when I was drafted three years ago, I wanted to make the team,” Robertson said. “My goal is obviously not to go back to the American League, my goal is to play in the NHL like it is every year. Nothing’s changed. So, as far as the chances of making the team, that’s up to [Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe].

“But for me, I’ve got to put myself in the best position to do so.”

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