So, I recently wrote far too many words on 50+ prospects I thought could be sleepers, and better than where they were being ranked for this year’s draft. Maybe the Leafs would draft one of them with their multitude of non-first round picks!
There was one prospect in particular that caught my interest, and I admit it’s become a bit of an obsession. I am determined to praise him as the next Brayden Point or Brendan Gallagher, small but skilled and determined forwards coming out of the WHL who should have been (or should be) first round picks.
What I want to do was combine some context about Robins’ growth as a prospect to this point with tons of scouting reports and mix in all those highlight videos to illustrate all the information about him you could (and I did) find.
Tristen Robins’ Backstory
Robins has always been a skilled but undersized forward. In 2016 he was drafted in the fourth round by the Regina Pats (WHL). He had scored 51 goals and 91 points in 35 games in to finish second in the entire Winnipeg AAA league in points.
Regina liked his skill in spite of his size, which was listed at 5’5” and 126 lbs. By comparison, Regina had another pick right after him and chose Kjell Kjemhus, who was listed as 5’8” and 159 lbs. Regina’s first pick in the draft, Cole Muir, was listed as 6’2” and 190 lbs. By the time Robins joined the WHL two years later as a 16 year old, he was up to 5’9” and 158 lbs. Not super small, but definitely undersized.
In 2018, Robins was part of a huge trade from Regina to Saskatoon. Regina was trying to stack their team during their season as the 2018 Memorial Cup hosts. Saskatoon was starting to build a young and offensively stacked team, and they liked Robins a lot. Here’s what Saskatoon’s GM said of Robins about Robins in the trade:
“Tristen Robins is a player we’ve coveted for a long time, his dad was a Blade and he’s an extremely exciting young player,” said Priestner. “Tristen is a skilled, smart, modern player. He’s a little undersized and he’s a late birthday so there’s no rush for him this year as a 16-year-old, but he’s a player that’s trending up and we feel he’s going to be a contributor to our offense.”
In Robins’ rookie season in the WHL, Saskatoon was a stacked team at forward. They had rising star Kirby Dach — who the Blackhawks drafted 5th overall after the season ended. They also had four overagers who were hybrid centers/wingers: Eric Florchuk, Chase Wouters, Max Gerlach and Gary Haden. The latter two finished better than a point per game, while the others rounded out their top two lines.
Robins spent his rookie season moving between the third and fourth line, and between the wing and center. That’s not unusual for a rookie, especially on a good team. Robins still finished 26th in the WHL in rookie scoring with 25 points in 68 games. He finished behind notable 2020 draft prospects Seth Jarvis, Connor McClennon, and Ozzy Wiesblatt, but still ahead of Jake Neighbours, Cross Hanas, and Jack Finley. It was a solid rookie season, considering he didn’t get much of an opportunity to play up the lineup as the season went on.
Robins’ 2019/20 Season
Due to his lack of exposure or dynamite rookie season, Robins wasn’t mentioned on many pre-season prospect lists as someone to watch coming into this season.
He started the year on the wing, with Saskatoon sticking with Chase Wouters and Eric Florchuk — who were still around — as their top centers. But with Kirby Dach making the Blackhawks roster and other overagers moving on as well, there was a spot for Robins in the top six but still not at center, his natural position. Then Florchuk was traded to the Vancouver Giants on January 9th, 2020. On January 11th, Robins played his first game as the Blades’ first line center. From there he blossomed. And then he exploded in the second half of the season.
In the 22 games Robins played after becoming their 1C, he averaged 1.68 points and 4.86 shots per game. But the signs were already there — he had been scoring and shooting at a slightly lower rate in the preceding 12 games as well. It was one of the reasons why the Blades, who were rebuilding, felt comfortable trading Florchuk and giving the reins to Robins.
The only player that had more points in the second half of the season in the WHL was consensus first round pick, Seth Jarvis. Robins finished the season 1st on Saskatoon and 14th in the whole WHL in scoring with 73 points in 62 games. He finished 9th in the league in shots. He finished 11th in the entire CHL among draft eligible players in even strength goals and primary assists. He finished 7th in shots per game. And he did all of this playing against 11 of the 15 best defensive teams in the entire CHL for most of his season.
So what happened? Was Robins’ late season surge just a run of good luck, or is there really something there that finally showed up once he was given the chance to shine?
Detailed Scouting Report & Video Breakdown
Thanks to Yannick St. Pierre (@DraftDynasty1) who came out with a 17+ minute breakdown of Robins’ skills. To save myself thousands more words, I’m just going to include the video here if you want more context for his skills:
The Size Question: Height Doesn’t Measure Heart
If you read anything about Robins between his WHL draft in 2016 and even his 2020 NHL draft profiles written now, you will see people mention his size. The difference is that back in 2016, Robins was legitimately tiny. He was more than half a foot shorter than some of his peers who were among the top WHL picks. By the time he entered the WHL he graduated from tiny to just small, having grown 4 inches in height but still lacking the muscle needed to excel against mostly larger, stronger opponents.
Now, Robins is listed as 5’10” and 174 lbs. The height is still a bit on the small side, but nowhere near enough to be a serious impediment. There are also two important things to note about his size: he seems to have really worked on getting stronger, and also uses a combination of sheer determination but also raw ability to get the most out of his stature.
One thing that can lead to a guy being a sleeper is being a late bloomer, either for size or skill development or both. Robins seems like a guy who always had skill — he always put up strong point totals in every level he’s played in, but he was given further opportunities more slowly than his bigger peers because of concerns over his size. Now he’s getting taller and stronger, and I think it’s possible that he maybe grows another inch or two and almost a certainty that he puts on more muscle. When he does, he will be an even greater force as opponents can’t out-muscle him as much.
Here’s what some scouts have said about his size and whether or not it affects his game:
HockeyProspect.com: 2020 NHL Draft Black Book Sneak Peek – Tristen Robins
He’s listed at 5’10 and looks more like 5’9 out on the ice, but don’t tell him his size, because he doesn’t play small in any way, shape or form. He’s willing to take hits to make plays, and we’ve seen him take a massive hit from a stationary position along the boards, only to be in awe of his ability to not only stay up right but send his larger opponent crumpled to the ice instead. He is the type of player that is willing to enter heavy traffic and it often leads to scoring chances. He’s not a perimeter player, he seemingly refuses to remain on the perimeter.
We were surprised how often he won battles against bigger, older and more physically developed players; he simply out competes and out hustles opposing players. He’s on the smaller side as mentioned, so occasionally he does get knocked off the puck despite his competitiveness. To counteract this, he increases his work rate when he turns the puck over and is willing to do what it takes to get the puck back.
Q: It also doesn’t seem you’re scared of anyone on the ice. You’ll look to tie up or throw a little hit to gain space on pretty much anyone. Is that an important part of your game?
Robins: For sure. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m actually engaging physically. I have a pretty gritty edge to my game at times and I think that is what kinda sets me apart from other skill based forwards. I’ll finish my checks and mix it up a little bit. I think it also creates space for me as well.
Our Sport Central: NHL Draft Profile: Tristen Robins
“I would credit that surge just from all the training that I did to prepare myself for this year,” added [Tristen Robins]. “I spent a lot of extra time in the gym and on the ice working on all the little things that in my opinion helped me have the year that I did.”
McKeen’s Hockey: Draft Profile - Tristen Robins
Robins is a competitive player that will engage to find space to get off his shot, but his issue is that he can be physically overmatched. Despite being positionally sound he has problems defending the cycle or stopping a net front drive. When he is on the puck he can get pushed off it and sometimes avoids a hit when a play could have been made. He is not quite undersized but he needs to add strength if he wants to control and dictate the play form the middle of the ice.
Future Considerations: 2020 Draft Guide (paywall):
Defensively, he wins board battles because he uses every part of himself including his feet, his hands, his stick and his low-center frame.
Here are some clips showing him engaging physically and winning battles in spite of his smaller size and lack of strength.
Robins chases down a little chip in by his teammate, then positions himself against the boards so that the defender who checks him is the one who falls to the ice. He then chases down the defender who retrieved the puck and muscles him off of it to create a turnover.
Tristen Robins #2020NHLDraft Saskatoon.— Joel Henderson (@dathockeydoe) March 19, 2020
He's been rising up draft lists for his creativity and smarts but he's a battler too.
Underrated plays like this make me happy.
He's number 11. Battles along the boards. Ties up a player allowing for a teammate to gain a chance. pic.twitter.com/jqpNljWsBB
This is just a straight up great check on an aggressive forecheck by Robins, on a top defensive prospect in this year’s draft who is also much bigger than him:
You have to appreciate a good forecheck. Tristen Robins (5'10/174 lbs) with a quality check on Kaiden Guhle (6'3/187 lbs). pic.twitter.com/NUzfVrbYe2— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) May 8, 2020
Here Robins slips past the defenders for position in front of the net, and keeps his position long enough to tap in the rebound while defenders are trying to shove him to the ice.
Greater Than the Sum of His Parts
I read a lot of scouting reports on Robins, and his best skills from a unanimous perspective seems to be his skating and his playmaking. I would also argue that he has an underrated shot — it’s not a work of art like Robertson’s or Matthews’, but he has a good, quick and accurate shot. It reminds me about Mikhail Abramov, actually.
But he also has a good shot of pretty much all types. He has a quick snap shot that surprises goalies, he has a good one-timer he can hammer through a goalie, he can pick the top corner or sneak one over a goalie’s pad and under his blocker/glove with a well-placed wrist shot, and I’ve seen some praises for his backhand too.
And here we are at another reason I think Robins’ rankings are lower than they should be. He has the “jack of all trades, master of none” tag applied to him. Many profiles note he doesn’t have one elite skill, and that will hold him back. I would argue the opposite side of that coin — Robins has no glaring weakness, which makes his floor very high. The biggest problem people have of him is that he’s a bit small and needs to get stronger.
So while if you just watch a single clip of one of his shots, you wouldn’t think it’s anything special. Same thing with his passes, and maybe even his skating to some extent. But then you watch him just play, and you can see the whole package is greater than the sum of his parts.
The Secret Sauce: Smarts & Work Ethic
If you’re like me, you roll your eyes whenever you read a scouting report talk about a player’s “hockey IQ” or “200-foot game” or “works incredibly hard”. That’s not to say I don’t believe that some hockey players are smarter than others, or harder working, or better defensively. It’s just that by itself it doesn’t tell you much, and is often used as lazy jargon terms that are not explained or broken down.
One thing that kind of bleeds through all his scouting reports, and what you can see in his highlights, is something that gets mentioned in passing but not outright praised. That is that Robins’ actual best abilities might be his combination of sheer effort and clever little tricks to get the absolute most out of each of his skills.
He’s a small player, but he can manipulate defenders to keep them off balance so he can still engage physically without getting clobbered all the time. He’s a good but not elite skater, but he uses subtle cuts, stops, and changes of pace to create additional space for a pass or a shot. He has a good not great shot, but he’s quick and accurate with it. He also uses things like a curl and drag to change the angle on a goalie or he deliberately cut into a defender to use them as a screen. Little things like that helped him score 33 goals in a shortened season.
At the same time, he will not be outworked. He is determined to not let his size hold him back, so he will use all of his skills and willpower to make plays. He will go in front of the net, he will take a hit, he will throw a hit, he will skate hard to get open and to backcheck when he messes up.
It’s all natural ability, but also something he’s deliberate and calculated about. From Joel Henderson’s interview with Robins at DobberProspects, linked above:
Q: Holding onto the puck a little longer. Is that more systems or gut reaction for you?
Robins: It’s more gut reaction and kinda knowing where the pressure is. Reading whether he’s on your right shoulder or left shoulder or trying to pin you to the boards. It can give you a few more options and puck possession is huge. Reading the play and seeing if a center is cheating on you or a couple defenders coming at you and looking for the one man open. Just reading the game and trying to comprehend it a little quicker.
From HockeyProspect.com linked above:
His competitiveness and energy doesn’t only extend to when he’s on the puck either. Robins is a three-zone player who keeps a demanding pace off the puck, and he uses this pace to pressure opposing defenses. We’ve seen him successfully anticipate an opponent’s passing lane in the neutral zone, then skate aggressively towards him to force a decision, before batting the puck out of mid air and taking off up the ice to generate a scoring chance, as one example. When he’s not using his hand-eye coordination or stick to generate takeaways, he’s using his frame to launch himself into opponents along the boards. We were surprised how often he won battles against bigger, older and more physically developed players; he simply out competes and out hustles opposing players.
This is a player who can process the play while still going at full speed, and can make the necessary adjustments to re-opening both his passing and shooting lanes. He blends deception, spatial-awareness, and creativity together to remain difficult to read. Most importantly, he can anticipate where the play is heading with and without the puck, then make the right decision on the ice, at the right time, at a consistent level. We’ve seen him drive down the right circle, use his hands to fake his wrist-shot before stopping up, dragging the puck around his opponent and chipping it to his teammate for a tap in goal as an example. It’s rare to see a player such as Robins, who plays with the engine he has, yet be poised and calculated to the degree he is.
The Hockey Writers: Tristen Robins – 2020 Draft Prospect Profile
Yet his game is anything but small. He possesses an incredible work ethic and determination, never shying away from the corners or taking on a bigger opponent on the forecheck. His tenacity is blended with a high hockey IQ, making him a nuisance to play against.
Yet, like Gallagher and Point, he possesses a very high work ethic, never slowing down or passing on an opportunity to make a play or challenge an opponent. He doesn’t take shifts off and it’s impossible not to watch him every time he steps on the ice.
From McKeen’s, linked above:
Robins is also a competent two-way player whose play without the puck really improved after that aforementioned move to the middle. He uses his speed well to apply back pressure and to angle off forwards in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers that he can use to quickly attack the other way.
Robins has shown great growth in his ability to process the game at full speed. He makes quick and decisive plays both offensively and defensively. Since moving to center he has done a good job supporting the defense in his own zone in addition to still managing to control his own defensive responsibilities. With the puck he always looking to play quick one-twos, and feeds the puck to the wing knowing it will come back to the center of the ice. He uses his speed to get to open ice, and is always moving in and out of spots making him a constant menace to defend.
From Smaht Scouting:
His work ethic cannot be faulted, he plays the game like each shift is his last, and is all over the ice. On the defensive side of the game he is a puck-hawk. He manages to get into passing lanes with regularity, and insomuch turns pucks over and sends them the other way with regularity, as well as breaking up passes in the neutral and defensive zone what seems like every few shifts. It is no surprise given the combination of speed and instincts that he is dangerous on the penalty kill when used there.
From The Hockey Writers:
Yet, like Gallagher and Point, he possesses a very high work ethic, never slowing down or passing on an opportunity to make a play or challenge an opponent. He doesn’t take shifts off and it’s impossible not to watch him every time he steps on the ice. At this point, it seems unlikely that he doesn’t keep improving, making him a great breakout candidate for 2020-21.
From Future Considerations’ draft guide (paywalled):
Defensively, he wins board battles because he uses every part of himself including his feet, his hands, his stick and his low-center frame. He works well away from the puck and is a disruptive figure by usage of stick and body. Overall, he is a smart player in all three zones. He has the tools to be at minimum a high energy player who provides secondary scoring.
So Why Isn’t Robins Ranked Higher?
This is the money question, isn’t it? He had an absurd scoring pace down the stretch, finished 3rd in the WHL among first time draft eligible players in points despite a slower start, and whose biggest glaring weakness can be summarized by the typical “he’s small” mantra.
If you look at Colin Cudmore’s 2020 NHL Draft Expected Range spreadsheet that aggregates prospect rankings form over 30 different sources, you will see that Robins has a huge spread in his rankings. His expected average range is in the 70’s, somewhere in the third round.
But people who watch him a lot are who rave the most about him. The more they sing his praises, the more others take notice and start watching him more too. Robins has been one of the top risers in the rankings since February/March, even after the season stopped. Elite Prospects just released their updated top 124 list, where Robins jumped up 30 spots to 51st.
I think this touches on a few reasons to address why Robins has been underrated:
- He is physically a late bloomer and had a slower development curve. Where his peers started bigger and moved up in the lineup or up leagues, Robins was held back longer despite racking up top points for his team and league.
- His size was held against him every step of the way, including now when he isn’t even that small. He’s also shown he has the skills so his size isn’t a problem, and he might also still be growing in height and in strength.
- In his first full WHL season he was blocked by strong team so he had no hype going into this year. It was only when he was given the top spot that he really emerged as a star on a rebuilding team. He carried their offense and played in all situations.
- This season ending early also probably prevented people from seeing even more gaudy point totals down the stretch, and into the playoffs. The playoffs especially is what can help a prospect get more attention.
- He is perceived as a “jack of all trades but master of none”, and the lack of an elite skill is something people think will hold him back.
That last point is something I want to address more of. While he might not have an elite strength like other top prospects, I think that this has three problems.
First, it ignores the fact that he also has no glaring flaw to his game. He’s not bad defensively, he doesn’t get pushed around easily or shy away from contact like other smaller players, he’s not a bad skater, he doesn’t have a bad shot, he’s doesn’t have bad situational or positional awareness. He’s good or very good at everything.
Second, I think it’s also over-focusing on flash and ignoring practical effectiveness. Robins does absolutely get everything out of himself that he can. His skill when looked at in isolation might seem okay, just okay. But he gets absolutely everything out of all his very good skills as he can which I think leads to people underrating his actual skills.
Third, he still has room to develop. This is a kid I want to be handed off to the Leafs’ developmental team to do just that. Let Barb Underhill work on his skating. Let the strength and conditioning team get him stronger. Let them work on his shot, his faceoffs, his defense, his saucer passes, all of it. He can still get better, and he wants to get better. Here’s an exchange from an interview he did with Puck Prose:
KP: What do you think you can improve moving forward to boost your chances of lacing up the skates for an NHL game?
TR: I feel like I’d have to improve everything in order to play in the NHL. You could never be good enough, I’m going to keep working on every aspect of my game to further my career.
His size and sleeper status has led to comparisons with Brendan Gallagher, Viktor Arvidsson, and even Brayden Point. They were all picked way lower than they should have been, and overlooked despite a small crowd of vocal fans of theirs telling people to watch them more closely.
I think if Robins was one-inch taller already, if he continued his dominance of the WHL for a full season and playoffs, if he played on a worse team last season who could give him more of a role earlier so he had more exposure, and if more people had paid close attention to his games, Robins would already be considered a borderline first round pick.
I am confident saying that the Leafs could pick Robins with their 2nd round pick and he would be a steal. What’s remarkable is that, if Bob McKenzie’s draft rankings are any indication — and they are, he makes the lists based on consensus among NHL scouts and teams — Robins could fall to the Leafs in the FOURTH round.
He has shown remarkable growth this year, and if I am correct he still has even more room to grow as a late bloomer. If he gains strength, adds another inch to his height, and keeps developing his skills like he wants you could see a guy who could compete for the WHL lead in scoring next season.