TORONTO – On the day he healthy scratched Nick Robertson for a fourth consecutive game, Sheldon Keefe wasn’t eager to discuss his decision.
Asked at what point not seeing game action might be a detriment to the 21-year-old left winger’s development, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach responded curtly:
“A couple things. First of all, I’m not going to answer this question every single day. It’s getting redundant. But what I would say is that there are a lot of benefits to being in the NHL for a young player.”
We get it.
The coach’s priority — particularly at this stage in the Leafs’ competitive trajectory — is to dress the players who give the club its best chance at winning the game.
Keefe isn’t messing with a winning lineup, particularly coming off his most decisive victory of the season.
Robertson has five even-strength points in his 10 appearances, but his underlying possession metrics are less than kind. He’s a power-play threat who doesn’t get much PP time, and one need only look at his ice time to see how much faith Keefe has in Robertson’s still-developing defensive game.
During his L.A. homecoming, Keefe skated Robertson just 6:32 total. In Robertson’s most recent appearance, a win over Vancouver, he got 8:49.
Toronto’s bottom six — and entire left side, for that matter — endured plenty of fluctuation through the campaign’s first month, contributing to a tense environment around the room.
Now, the Maple Leafs’ forward lines are gaining some traction, finding some rhythm, and that emerging consistency has arrived with Robertson on the outside looking in.
Keefe, understandably, wants defensive dependability and a natural centre in his bottom six, hence the callup of Pontus Holmberg. And he appreciates how Denis Malgin — Robertson’s direct competition entering training camp — has adapted to contribute as a fourth-liner.
He wants to give that chemistry time to flourish.
Simply put, Keefe says, Robertson’s scratches are based on performance, not age or attitude.
“He’s working his ass off and staying ready,” Keefe noted.
Behind the scenes, there are daily discussions amongst the Leafs’ decision-makers about how best to proceed with Robertson.
With Matt Knies unsigned and in college, Robertson is regarded as the best young scorer under contract with an organization that has spent a load of futures to contend now.
To our understanding, the player has not requested a trade. He wants desperately to be an NHLer every day and understands he may have to wait for an injury or poor performance from one of his teammates to get another significant run with the Leafs.
The trick here is to keep developing and engaging Robertson, who still has the potential to establish himself as a full-time — and cap-friendly — contributor. Robertson can also be returned to the farm at any point, since he does not require waivers.
“As far as here, Marlies, whatever, that’s not my decision. That’s an organizational decision,” Keefe said.
“As for right now, he’s here. And we want to continue to work with him.”
Robertson has already been through the wringer in his still-young pro career. Multiple injuries, pandemic-shortened seasons, and the yo-yoing between the minors and bigs have the undersized player often referring to hockey as an “industry.”
A cold word used by a player who is trying to maintain an emotional distance from his status on the depth chart.
“It is what it is. I try to be positive whether it’s in my favour or not. Anything can change in this industry, I’ve learned. It’s not a really big deal to me. I’m kinda used to it,” Robertson said recently.
“It’s different. I’ve been scratched before when I was healthy. I mean, my brother [the Dallas Stars’ Jason] went through the same thing his first full season. I’m not going to sit here and say I want to be scratched, but it is something that’s happened to rookies before, so it’s not like I’m looking into it too much.”
How much does Keefe discuss his approach with Robertson?
“Maybe the initial time when I do get scratched, [the coach] will take you in, but after that you look at the [lineup] board and see how it goes,” Robertson replied.
“You need to be consistent to be where you want to be in the lineup — and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
One-Timers: With Matt Murray solid during his three appearances over five nights last week, the goaltender will catch a breather Monday, yielding the net to backup Erik Källgren…. Islanders checker Cal Clutterbuck needs only seven hits to surpass Dustin Brown for the most all-time…. Ilya Samsonov (knee) will return to practice Tuesday and will travel on the Leafs’ upcoming four-game road trip. He is not expected to play this week, however…. T.J. Brodie will not travel as his recovery from an oblique injury has not progressed as quickly as hoped.
Maple Leafs projected lines Monday vs. New York Islanders
Bunting – Matthews – Nylander
Kerfoot – Tavares – Marner
Engvall – Holmberg – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese — Kämpf – Malgin
Rielly – Benn
Giordano – Holl
Sandin – Liljegren