TORONTO — When Auston Matthews compares the 18-year-old Nick Robertson who scored a playoff goal in the 2020 bubble to the 21-year-old with his best chance to make the post-camp roster, he thinks about the prospect’s bad luck (injuries) and bad timing (pandemic).
But Matthews also sees a confidence and calmness that only arrives with experience.
“The world kind of shifted as he was entering the league. So, it's not easy, mentally, going through that. Physically as well. But he's looked really confident so far,” Matthews says.
“I think the biggest thing for him is, sometimes you try too hard, and it almost works against you. You're trying and you're kinda forcing and pushing and wanting it so bad that sometimes you just gotta kind of relax out there and play your game. Work hard and play smart and not try to force the issue too much.
“This camp he’s done a really good job of just finding his game. And obviously, you score a couple goals, you get that confidence. And that's what he loves to do.”
Robertson was a point per game with the Marlies last season, and his three preseason goals helped earn him a second-line audition alongside William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot in Montreal on Monday.
Then Robertson went out, drew a hooking penalty that led to the Leafs’ opening power-play goal, generated a gritty/pretty primary assist on Nylander’s insurance goal, and helped set up two more in a 5-1 preseason win.
He’s now up to seven points, tied with Matt Duchene and Timo Meier at the top of the NHL preseason scoring race.
For Robertson to make the most of his greatest weapon, he needs prime offensive minutes. Yet a top-six role also requires the 5-foot-9 left-winger to match the strength of top NHL D-men and be trusted defensively.
“I'm not sure there's too much I can't really teach him about how to shoot because, honestly, I think he probably shoots it harder than anybody on the team,” Matthews says.
“It's just little details of the game (that are) so important, especially with how fast guys are and how tight the play is, to be able to utilize that shot when there’s not a lot of space.”
Kerfoot doesn’t want the kid to be portrayed as a one-trick pony.
“He's a lot more than just a shot, right? Like, he's a good hockey player,” Kerfoot says. “He can make plays, works really hard, and is willing to do everything that needs to be done to be a good all-around player.”
Keefe raves that Robertson’s exhibition games “are the best I've seen Nick look in a Leafs jersey,” particularly because he’s adjusted his approach to conjure offence (six points in three games) within the team’s structure and the accelerated pace of the pros.
As much as Robertson’s stellar camp has tantalized fans and impressed his teammates, there is still no guarantee he won’t begin the 2022-23 season as a Marlie.
“As much as these are NHL preseason games, this is not the NHL,” Keefe notes.
“But in Nick’s case, whatever has been in front of him, he's just continued to get better.”
Sandin is stress-free… finally
The young defenceman is still adjusting to Toronto time after happily hopping on a cross-Atlantic flight from Sweden, undergoing medical testing, catching up on missed meetings, and scrambling into practices.
He’s busy but relaxed.
“I’d say there wasn’t a point without stress this summer. It was definitely stressful. From the beginning of the summer, I thought (my contract) was going to be done every single day and every single week,” Sandin said during his first meeting with Leafs reporters.
“I was watching the preseason games, and I was just itching to get here and play.”
Sandin says that his reception has been a warm one, and he has no issues patrolling the ice to Muzzin’s right, his unnatural side, in the absence of pal Timothy Liljegren.
“I feel comfortable on the right,” Sandin says. “I need to prove myself. I need to show them I had a good summer and be ready when the season starts.”
Keefe believes the 22-year-old has had enough time in the league to figure out his strengths and weaknesses and has reached “the right age now to really start to blossom.”
Sandin spent his summer training (and golfing) alongside William Nylander and bulked up from 178 to 194 pounds.
To ease his mind from the stress of the stalemate, Sandin says he’d leave his phone at home and go foraging in the woods for chanterelle mushrooms, which he’d use for cooking.
“I’m super excited to be back,” he says. “The sun’s shining right now, so I can’t complain.”
Muzzin’s back issues go way back
Muzzin may have been slowed by injuries recently, but the 33-year-old’s wit is as quick as ever.
Asked how he went from saying that he's physically fine on media day to sitting out the first week of camp with back soreness, Muzzin quips: “I think it was sitting talking to media all day.”
On his return to practice shortly after seeing forwards Calle Järnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot play the bulk of a preseason shutout win as defencemen: “I had to get back so I wouldn’t lose my job.”
Humour is a wonderful tool for deflection.
But the risk of injury is something serious for Muzzin, a family man who suffered consecutive concussions last winter and missed 43 per cent of Toronto’s regular season recovering from multiple injuries.
“If you want to get in deep with it, yeah, there’s life after hockey. You want to be able to be normal. I got kids. I want to be able to play with them,” Muzzin said Monday.
“But I'm not worried about that. We're taking the right steps here and managing it, and we'll continue to do so.”
Muzzin doesn’t want to use the word injury when discussing the discomfort and tightness that popped up in his back.
It’s an area of the bruising defenceman’s body that he’s been managing since he was 15 and underwent surgery on two herniated discs that robbed the player of his first OHL season with Sault Ste. Marie.
While Muzzin admits his false start to camp was frustrating, he is now cleared for contact, ramping up his conditioning, and targeting this weekend to get into his first preseason game.
"You play a long time and a lot of games, and stuff adds up and builds up. It's something we've managed really good for a long time, and we have to continue with it," Muzzin says.
“Anytime you get a surgery at that age and in a crucial spot where you're playing a physical sport, it's something you deal with every day. And I've been doing it for, what, 15 years now. So, it's nothing new for me.”
Muzzin holds ultimate faith and respect for the club’s medical staff to help him play as many games as possible.
"It's unreal," he says. "The guys in there will prolong your career."
How Muzzin’s body holds up to the rigours of another long season will be a question that lingers like back pain.
“I’m not worried about Jake,” Keefe says. “If anything, the playoff experience last year showed us that he's gonna be ready to play as long as his body is able to put him in the lineup, which at this point looks like it is. He’s going to be ready."
One-Timers: Matt Murray has played 100 minutes in a Leafs sweater and only allowed one goal, during a Habs power-play. He’s 44-for-45 on shots faced…. John Tavares (oblique) and Timothy Liljegren (hernia) have resumed skating…. With Tavares sidelined, Michael Bunting is making good on his promotion to the top power-play unit…. Calle Järnkrok wasn’t feeling well enough to practise Sunday but returned to action Monday…. Pierre Engvall is recovering nicely after twisting his foot during off-season training but needs another round of imaging before he gets the greenlight for contact. He’s practising with the group in full and hopeful to see preseason action this weekend against the Red Wings. “We’re not quite there yet,” Keefe cautions.