With spots of blood speckling his sweater, cotton stuffed up both nostrils, Nick Robertson looked every bit a man fighting desperately for his spot on this Toronto Maple Leafs team Saturday night.
A goal scored in dramatic fashion, capping off a 3-1 Leafs pre-season win over the Montreal Canadiens, might’ve moved the needle some. The three games of volume shooting before this one likely haven’t hurt, either.
Coming into the Saturday-night tilt under the Bell Centre lights, the 22-year-old found himself in a familiar position, caught between the fire of pre-season promise and the in-game misfortune that seems to douse his hopes of a breakout year on an annual basis. This time, it was a three-game snakebitten run that was holding Robertson down, the young winger having amassed 19 shots through three-and-a-half games of pre-season play — pacing all Leafs forwards in three of the four games he’s suited up for — before a bit of luck finally came the young American’s way.
Wading through the neutral zone with minutes left in the second period, his Maple Leafs up 2-0 on the Canadiens despite the shot differential leaning heavily towards the home side, Robertson floated up near the Habs’ blue line as T.J. Brodie collected the puck back in Toronto’s own zone.
The veteran, in his first appearance of this pre-season, fed Robertson with an inch-perfect stretch pass, sending the winger in on net with red jerseys draped all over him. The chaos took Robertson right into netminder Sam Montembeault, the ensuing collision then delivering him onto the box with a goalie interference call to his name. Fast-forward two minutes, and there was Robertson, stepping out of the box just as the puck whipped around the boards and popped out directly in front of him.
He collected it along the right wall and cut left, Montreal’s William Trudeau chasing him down, before shifting the puck backhand-forehand and fluttering the twine, his 20th shot a winner.
“It happened so fast. It was just nice to get that one, especially after a few games where it was a post, or a nice save from the goalie, all these chances — finally, finally it went in,” Robertson said of the tally post-game. “Hopefully I can just continue that as the games go on.”
Whether the hard-earned goal and the slate of volume-shooting will be enough to grant Robertson a chance to make 2023-24 his long-awaited breakout year remains unclear — especially given the competition for spots on Toronto’s wings and the other campers making waves alongside him. But heading into a contract year, there’s no doubt the young winger is hoping this is the one that takes.
He showed those familiar glimpses of promise as the Maple Leafs began the back half of their pre-season Saturday, stringing together chances early, pressing the opposition to force turnovers that fed blue-and-white chances, and looking more fleet of foot after an off-season spent working on his skating.
His waiver-exempt status and the ghosts of his injury history might work against him once again, but there’s no denying the 22-year-old is showing his mettle as he fights to earn his spot.
Minten making things interesting as bottom six comes into focus
The Maple Leafs’ opening-night roster is far from settled, but among the forward corps, there’s little mystery to much of the arrangement.
The top six will feature some combination of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi. Max Domi or Matthew Knies will likely slot in there too, the other dropping no lower than the third line. It’s the rest of the bottom six where things get interesting. Still, David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok, Sam Lafferty and Ryan Reaves all figure to slot into the lineup, too. Which leaves just one spot up for grabs: fourth-line pivot.
PTO veteran Noah Gregor seems on track to snag that final chair, but after another night of quality from 19-year-old Fraser Minten, the 2022 38th-overall pick might just be throwing a wrench into his club’s plans.
It isn’t just that Minten’s been a consistent, two-way threat through his four pre-season appearances to this point; it’s the potential, too, of what he seems to be building alongside Knies.
Rewind back to Friday night, and it was Minten and Knies opening the scoring with a bit of shorthanded brilliance — Minten winning the puck deep in Montreal’s zone with a smart stick on the forecheck, before feeding Knies in the high slot for a lethal wrister.
For the encore performance a night later, the duo did it again, Nos. 39 and 23 connecting to draw first blood once more as Minten won a race in the corner, dished to Knies, and watched his linemate cut behind the net to beat Montembeault on the wraparound. Midway through the second, Toronto benefitted from another quality display from the Kamloops Blazers product, Minten fighting through bodies in the slot to try to get a shot off, before finishing off a chance at the netfront a moment later to double the Leafs’ lead.
“I think they’re just two guys that are both hard on the puck, they’ve got good size and good length, both skilled guys, they’re both young guys,” Keefe said post-game of the duo. “They get along well, and they’re both kind of in it for the same reasons, in terms of trying to impress and adjust to the league, and all those kinds of things.”
That said, the coach made clear the impression Minten’s made goes far beyond his chemistry with No. 23 alone.
“Quite honestly, I think both of those guys would do well no matter where I had them, or who I had them with, the way that they’re playing,” he said. “It’s an old cliche, ‘mature beyond his years,’ but he is. Not only in the way he plays but on the bench, he’s the most talkative guy. And there’s not a lot of fluff in what he’s saying — he’s directing traffic. He’s coaching, in a lot of ways.
“His leadership qualities are what really stand out. And then he gets on the ice, he competes, he’s in the right spots, and he can make a play. He’s a great player.”
Toronto’s bench boss made his faith in the teenager clear as the clock wound down on the game, sending Minten, Knies and Gregor out on the ice for a key defensive-zone faceoff to protect the lead in the tilt’s final minute.
Cowan continues his run as Maple Leafs’ pre-season talisman
If there’s one threat that could sink Robertson and Minten’s chances of starting the year with the big club, it’s the young, high-flying Easton Cowan, who retained his place Saturday night as the story of his club’s camp.
Nothing says pre-season like a teenage OHLer putting on highlight-reel displays in an NHL sweater. Still, on a night that saw the Maple Leafs go up against a Habs lineup highlighted by star forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield — with Toronto’s own all-star-calibre talent resting — the young Cowan was still out there, proving he can hang.
It started early, Cowan poking a puck free, taking the spoils of his turnover and rushing up ice to feather a pass to a streaking linemate. It continued on the power play, the 18-year-old coming up with some threatening looks, and then disrupting a shorthanded chance from Montreal after the home side pressed the visitors back into their own zone. It kept going with a few shorthanded flashes of quality of his own, too.
And then there was the third period. Buoyed by the lead up on the board, Cowan was all poise and confidence — turning more pucks over and pushing the game up the ice, driving towards the net, dancing around defenders in the o-zone and wading out of scrums with the puck still on his stick.
It means little in terms of how he may fare against genuine NHL competition, with regular-season stakes. But like Minten, the young playmaker’s giving Keefe something to think about as the pre-season reaches its final stages.
“The only name I heard all week was Easton Cowan. That’s the only name I heard — he was the guy,” Keefe said of his young star earlier this week, after Cowan began his pre-season with a two-point debut. “How he’s looked so far, you can’t help but be excited.”
Regardless of where he starts come October, Saturday night likely did little to quell that excitement.