The Toronto Maple Leafs have a tough decision to make ahead of the 2020-21 season, when choosing what they should do with top prospect Nick Robertson.
With the COVID-19 pandemic presently showing no signs of slowing down, the fate of the 2019-20 NHL campaign remains uncertain. Regardless, the Toronto Maple Leafs also have to look ahead towards next season.
One prime example of this relates to Nick Robertson; more specifically what the Leafs should do with him? It’s actually a good challenge to have, in terms of how far he’s come.
When Robertson was picked in the second round of the 2019 NHL draft, the overriding opinion was the Leafs had landed themselves a steal. The praise was unanimous for a player who many felt should have been taken in the first round.
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Scouting reports raved about the 18-year-old’s offensive talent, quick feet, work ethic and overall skill level. About the only concern was his size — or lack thereof — which partly explains why he was still available for the Leafs to select with the 53rd pick.
Robertson signed his three-year entry level contract, and attended the Leafs’ rookie and training camps. Then he was sent back to the OHL to play his third season with the Peterborough Petes.
To say the winger has been a revelation during the 2019-20 OHL season, would be an understatement. The jump in his level of play and production from last season to this has been nothing short of breathtaking, with an astounding 86 points in just 46 games. (Last season he had 55 points in 54 games.)
In terms of scoring specifically, Robertson’s 55 goals leads all CHL leagues, never mind just the OHL As noted by Chris Faria of The Hockey Writers, his average of 1.196 goals per game is on course to be seventh-best in OHL history for a season.
For perspective, Faria adds that Roberson is not far behind former Leaf and NHL Hall of Famer Eric Lindros, whose average of 1.246 goals per game during the 1990-91 OHL season is fourth all time. From more recent history, Roberston is ahead of current Leaf John Tavares, who averaged 1.075 goals per game during the 2006-07 OHL campaign.
The Arcadia, California native also showed what he could do at the World Junior Championships. Even though Team USA were eliminated at the quarterfinals stage, he produced five points (two goals and three assists) in five games and was one of their best performers while playing on the top line.
With all this to consider, the Leafs must now decide what to do with Robertson next season. Making the decision more difficult, he will be too young to go to the Toronto Marlies, leaving a choice between returning to the OHL or trying to make it with the Leafs.
As Luke Fox of Sportsnet points out, there is little to suggest a fourth season with the Peterborough Petes would help Robertson’s development. On the flip side, his chances of winning a spot on the Leafs’ roster seem as slight as his build.
With hindsight, general manager Kyle Dubas admits he would have taken a different approach with the left-shot forward ahead of the 2019-20 season. As reported by Fox, Dubas said:
"“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should’ve given him more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there. But he went back to Peterborough, he had a great attitude, and he was an excellent player for them right away.”"
In fairness to Dubas, no matter how good the Leafs — or anyone else — thought Robertson was, no one could have predicted how explosive he was going to be for the Peterborough Petes in 2019-20.
As it is, Dubas is more clear about what approach he is going to take with Roberson moving forward. As per Fox, the GM said:
"“I think come training camp we’ll give him every opportunity to potentially make the team and put the ball in his court and see what he can do in in the fall.”"
Interestingly, one thing which could help Robertson’s chances of making the Leafs’ roster, is their much talked about salary cap situation. In this respect, his comparatively low cost would certainly benefit the team.
This is not to suggest Robertson isn’t good enough to make the Leafs’ roster on his own merits, but it is still worth keeping an eye on as a potential deciding factor. Overall though, he presents a welcome problem for the team to contend with.
What would you do next season if you were in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ positions? Should Robertson return to the OHL of be giving his shot at making the NHL roster? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.