When Sheldon Keefe shared his expectations for Nick Robertson and detailed what the prospect needed to demonstrate in the team’s single tune-up game in order to prove he should remain a fixture for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualification round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the coach mentioned establishing a level of comfort, having a meaningful impact through energy, effort and enthusiasm, and establishing a level of comfort.
With the two buns in the criteria sandwich proving to be the same, it seemed clear that the most important thing for the 18-year-old Robertson in this short window was to look similar, or at least close to, the player that scored 55 goals in 46 games with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League this season, despite the obvious step up in competition.
In other words, the moment, it seemed, couldn’t be too big.
It still had to be him out there.
While his performance wasn’t necessarily convincing in either direction, Robertson acquitted himself fine in his first NHL start of any kind, picking up an assist in the Maple Leafs’ 4-2 exhibition win over the Montreal Canadiens inside of an empty Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night.
Robertson was mostly composed, didn’t once look as though he was over his head, and before it was all over, he put his imprint on the game from the third line left wing slot, playing alongside Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen.
Keefe summed up the teenage rookie’s night like this:
“I thought he had some great sequences. It was good to see him play with some confidence with the puck, and also moving his feet with some work. I’m not sure what his ice time was today, but I thought he had some shifts where he was noticeable in a positive way.”
Comfort, check. Impact, ditto.
So, test passed then, right? That has to mean Robertson has usurped either Pierre Engvall or Frederik Gauthier and will be included in the lineup for Game 1 of the qualification round versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We’re going to continue to digest all this here over the next few days,” Keefe said, pouring cold water on the idea that Robertson had earned his keep. “I wouldn’t make any assumptions on Nick or some of the other positions in our lineup. We just haven’t made those decisions.”
We may have some understanding on which way the Leafs may be leaning based on their alignment in practice in the coming days.
For now, we’re left with the criteria and, more recently, the performance.
It began as it often does in debuts for Robertson: with an ill-advised offensive zone penalty a few shifts into the game. A touch impatient in scramble opportunity deep in the offensive zone, Robertson latched on to Canadiens defender Victor Mete and was called for holding.
It was the sort of thing that, had it not warranted a skipped shift or two, might force a newcomer to shrink a little bit in his role. That’s why a creative, confident, comfortable-looking backhand chip to send John Tavares into neutral ice just seconds after exiting the box seemed to be one of the more encouraging moments for the debuting winger.
Not long after that, Robertson found himself on the receiving end of the best scoring chance in the entire opening period.
Hollering for a pass in the trail position after Kapanen sprinted behind the defence, Robertson had Carey Price leaning the wrong way, only to see the puck roll off his stick before he could lift the backhander into the net.
Nick Robertson nearly got one there off a great feed from Kapanen pic.twitter.com/7KrSPKT8Dj— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) July 29, 2020
For many, it’s those moments and an increased likelihood that he will convert his chances, as opposed to Engvall or Gauthier, that might give Robertson an edge.
But while he failed to validate that idea in his moment in alone on Price, Robertson still managed to have success, mainly through that effort, energy and enthusiasm Keefe had outlined after the club’s final open practice at training camp.
Robertson was quite clearly one of the more effective and determined forecheckers involved in the game, making a habit of winning pucks and prolonging possessions for the Leafs in the attacking end.
Here’s one of the better demonstration of that work:
Robertson's scoring ability will be important but it's his motor and work ethic that's going to secure him a spot in the lineup. pic.twitter.com/DiA9m9qBOI— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) July 29, 2020
It was a similar sample of the footwork, intelligence, and that little extra bit of effort late in the second period that won Robertson the time and space to send a pass over to Morgan Rielly, who turned the invitation into a secondary assist for the debuting winger.
In addition to his assist, Robertson led the Leafs in on-ice shot differential and finished the game with an 86 percent expected goals, as per numbers generated by Natural Stat Trick.
It was, of course, the smallest of samples, and only one exhibition game. On this night, though, his only night so far, Robertson did what he was asked to do.
But while it was all about his comfort level Tuesday night, only Keefe’s will really matter when the playoffs begin Sunday night.
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