This headline might sound like pure clickbait, because I'd say the consensus from social media and even comments here is that Nick Robertson has had a strong pre-season and is penciled into a lot of people's regular season lineups already. If it was my call, Robertson would not start the regular season on the Maple Leafs roster. And from the latest lineup, it looks like the Leafs agree.
I think he could be considered close, in that he is close to playing NHL minutes and treading water at replacement level. But that's not good enough for him – he does not need waivers to be sent down, and others potentially on the roster do. With Jarnkrok coming back now, and the Leafs likely wanting to sign Gregor, he's quickly run out of spots to win.
That's enough math right there to safely assume he'll be a Marlie to start the season. But aside from that, I don't want Robertson to just be replacement level. There are real things he needs to work on to improve his game, habits he needs to learn and others he needs to unlearn. I think he's close. There is a chance that if he had not missed so much time during key years in his development, he'd have made those adjustments already. But that doesn't mean it makes sense for him or the Leafs for him to try and learn that on the NHL roster just yet.
By this point, we should all know Robertson's background. He was a second round pick. He blew up in his D+1 season in the OHL, leading the league in goals despite playing around 10-20 games fewer than those trailing him. He also finished fourth in the league in points per game.
His season was so good, that when the pandemic hit and the NHL was running their playoffs in the bubble, Toronto used him in four of their five game series against Columbus. He even scored a goal!
We all know what happened after that – injuries, and lots of them. He has not played in more than 38 combined games in a single season in his pro career. When he's been healthy, he's shown that he was already one of the top offensive forwards in the AHL at a point per game. In the NHL, it's been a different story. Robertson has played 31 NHL games in the regular season across three seasons, with only 7 points in those games. Last season, he did look better. He had some flashes, even one or two whole games, where he looked like he was finally figuring things out. Who can forget...
But even at his best last year, Robertson never looked like a dominant offensive force. For the vast majority of his time on the ice when he wasn't at his best, he simply looked ineffective. Effort has never been a problem with him – he always works very hard, skates hard, throws his body around, and tries to do what he can to help. His problem has been that even as hard as he has tried, it hasn't been enough.
Which begs the question...
What's wrong with Nick Robertson?
The main strength of Robertson as a player is his offense – more specifically, his shot. He earned a reputation for being a sniper in junior, and that carried over to the AHL. For me, the problem is that so far in his NHL career, Robertson just hasn't been that good offensively. And I don't just mean he doesn't have points. Let's talk about his shot, which is still a very good shot. But it's everything leading up to him shooting that is what I think is "wrong" with him.
If you compare Robertson's individual expected goal rate at 5v5 (so the rate at which he has quality scoring chances for himself) against the rest of the Maple Leafs in the past three regular seasons, Robertson would rank 17th. That is behind the likes of Aston-Reese, Acciari, Engvall, and Simmonds. Not a great sign.
The good news is that last year Robertson had a noticeable improvement in that area. He would rank 7th last season, ahead of Kerfoot, Jarnkrok and O'Reilly but behind Malgin and McMann. The problem is that Robertson only improved from being worse than defensive specialists and enforcers to being in the realm of decent NHL offensive forwards. But if we look at the rest of his game, those are still not good enough to only be okay offensively.
If I'm going to diagnose why Robertson has been so ineffective at having scoring chances, I want to look at his heatmap from last year.
What I see is a player that just barely breaks even in terms of overall on-ice impact. The primary drivers for Robertson are offense (duh), with a good amount of shots, and meh playmaking or powerplay impacts. Most important, he is bang on average at finishing. That's the problem right there.
My biggest problem with Robertson's game in the NHL is that he doesn't get enough open shots off in mid to close range. Those are the areas where he should show above average finishing. He has the shot to beat goalies better than average in that range. So why doesn't he?
How can Nick Robertson be fixed?
I think there are two related reasons for why Robertson doesn't turn more of the shots in those areas into goals. I think that he is not very good at putting himself in a position to get open shots in the "home plate" area where his shot can do the most damage. I always got the impression that he never gets the chance to unleash his shot as much as you'd think, given that his biggest strength.
Problem one: grain of salt for y'all because this is very eye test-y, but I feel like Robertson has a sniper's body with physical gifts honed to shoot and score. But I often see him trying to play like he's a grinding, power forward. I've seen it over and over again this pre-season, him digging in the corners, throwing his weight around, and working a lot along the boards. Trying to work a cycle in the corner and taking a dumb slashing penalty when a much bigger defensemen pretty easily stopped him.
Don't get me wrong, it's nice that he tries so hard and doesn't let his size discourage him from going to the dirty areas of the ice. But he's still a smaller winger, where his effectiveness in those areas is not going to be great.
Problem two, which is related to the first: Robertson doesn't seem to be that effective at getting open so he can use his shot. It was very revealing to watch Robertson play against Montreal and Cole Caufield this pre-season. Caufield is a similar archetype of player (small sniper) but who is a much more effective offensive producer to date despite both being in the same draft class. They have the same overall offensive impact rating per Micah (+5%), though how they get there is different.
Caufield shoots more often, and from all over the ice. Most importantly, he has a much higher finishing impact. Caufield scored goals at four times the rate of Robertson. Caufield also has a higher rate of individual expected goals, despite his heatmap showing his shots typically come from further out on the perimeter compared to Robertson.
Why do I think this is the case?
I've seen broadcasts talk about other snipers in the league and how they get open – so think Matthews, Ovechkin, and Caufield. At times, they will move around the zone in ways to discourage defenders from following them. It could be skating around behind the net when the puck is at the point, or even skating out of the offensive zone completely. When the defenders don't follow them since they're so far from the play, the sniper is unguarded so they can try and sneak back into the play unnoticed. It's those sneaky little skating routes that help a sniper get more open shots that are less likely to get blocked or deflected away. Something like the first goal here, in fact:
I think this is at least one of the reasons why Robertson doesn't get as many open shots in that 'home plate' area around the net, and also why his ixG rate is still low. He is spending so much time trying to be everywhere and do everything on the ice, and if he's always involved he'll always have a defender near him. And when Toronto does get the puck, he's not doing the little things to help get the puck for an open shot where he can do more damage.
What can Nick Robertson do?
If I want Robertson to be more effective as an offensive forward, I want him to make more use of his biggest weapon: his shot. I want him to develop the skills and thought processes to help him use his shot more. I don't want him trying to be a power forward/grinder type. That just takes him away from being able to do what he could to use his shot better.
I want him watching tape of every good sniper in the league to learn what tricks they use to score goals from their shot. Learn what routes they take, how and where they skate to lose defenders in coverage. See how they position their feet and their body so they're always ready to shoot the moment the puck lands on their stick.
I want Robertson to move the puck quickly when he gets it, if it's not for an open shot. While he is okay at passing or handling the puck, he is not an elite playmaker or capable of dangling his way past NHL defenders to get himself open. When he has the puck when he can't shoot, it means he isn't open or doing anything to get open. So if he gets the puck, move it along quickly and then get open. I want him to use his teammates more, and trust they will make the plays to set him up. He can't and shouldn't try to do everything himself.
But I want to make something clear here, I am specifically talking about how Robertson plays in the offensive zone. This doesn't mean that I think he should not use his high effort, high pace of play elsewhere on the ice – in the defensive zone and neutral zone. That kind of thing helps him have a better impact on defense than he would otherwise – he's already better in those areas than Caufield, for example.
I would say that I don't even necessarily want him to only be a floating, opportunistic sniper in the offensive zone all the time. But at this point, I want him to force himself to do it now so he learns best how to use those kinds of tricks and skills. And then adjust to find the right balance. This is another reason why I don't want him in the NHL right now, I want him to learn those habits in the AHL where he can practice it with a lot of minutes.
I think there is a real good chance that Robertson himself, maybe at the direction of coaching, is trying to play in other ways because the Leafs don't want a one dimensional player. But I admit I do not like the idea, because I am just very skeptical that it is a play style he can find a lot of success with. He's not big or strong enough to be great along the boards. He's not quick or nimble enough (or at least doesn't try to play like it) to do the same thing in a different way either. He's not a good enough puck handler or passer to dangle through players or slip passes through them. His defensive impact works on effort alone, I would not say he has the skills and instincts to be a defensive specialist.
At this point, I think he needs to learn more about using his tools more wisely and pick his spots. Matthews has enough other skills that he doesn't rely on the sneaking or floating all the time. Caufield doesn't even do it 100% of the time, but he does it more often out of necessity. Robertson may not have to be exactly like Caufield, but I'd say he's closer to him on that spectrum than he is to Matthews. I think Robertson needs time and minutes (please god just stay healthy for one season...) to figure out the right balance. This kind of thing is, arguably, what he would have learned the most if he hadn't missed so much time due to injury.
But unfortunately for Robertson, the NHL is not a development league. The Maple Leafs do not want to have him take up a roster spot and figure this out on the fly. Unless Robertson convinces them that he is a much better player right now than, say, Noah Gregor then he'll start on the Marlies. Once he can make the adjustments and improvements to his game they want him to make – and that may not be anything I said I thought he should in this post – then they'll start bringing him back to the Leafs roster.