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Can Nick Robertson make the NHL next year?

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Robertson is playing like a first round pick and that might not be enough to crack the NHL

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

Let me tell you a story about two small wingers who scored a ton of goals in the OHL.

Player A

Player A is a 5’7” winger, and for his entire OHL career he was one of the league’s top goal scorers.

In the season before he was drafted, he started the year 17 years old but spent most of the season as an 18 year old. He scored 51 goals that year, tied for second in the entire league and one back of the leader.

Despite his gaudy goals and points, Player A fell to the second round before he was drafted. He put up even bigger numbers in the OHL the next season when he was 18/19 years old, potting 65 goals and easily claiming the scoring crown that season. His next season, he cracked the NHL roster for the team that drafted him and he hasn’t looked back.

Player B

Player B is a 5’9” winger, and is one of the OHL’s top goal scorers.

The season he was drafted, he spent the whole season as a 17-year-old and scored a respectable 27 goals in 54 games. Not world-beating, but very good for his age.

He had some hype as a late first round pick, but ultimately fell to the second round. He exploded in the next season in the OHL as an 18 year old, having the second most goals despite missing far more games than his peers at the top of the goal scoring race. Now people are starting to wonder if he can’t follow in Player A’s footsteps and crack an NHL lineup in his Draft+2 season.

If you haven’t already guessed, Player A is Alex DeBrincat and Player B is Nick Robertson.

Can Robertson Follow Alex DeBrincat’s Path?

Sure he can! Maybe.

DeBrincat spent his whole OHL career playing on a stacked team, the Erie Otters. They reached the conference finals or conference semi-finals in 3 straight seasons. Each time they lost to the eventual league champion, and twice they lost to the eventual Memorial Cup winner. His team featured the likes of Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, Taylor Raddysh, Travis Dermott, and Anthony Cirelli.

Here’s how his development progressed:

  • Pre-Draft season: 60 games, 51 goals, 269 shots = 4.5 shots per game, 19 sh%
  • Draft+1 season: 63 games, 65 goals, 309 shots = 4.9 shots per game, 21 sh%
  • Draft+2 season: made the Blackhawks’ NHL roster

Nick Robertson, meanwhile, would appear to be pacing behind DeBrincat, but also has dealt with far different circumstances. Where DeBrincat had extremely good teammates on a stacked team, Robertson started his OHL career on the 3rd to last team in the entire OHL.

His pre-draft season they were at least mediocre — they made the playoffs with the 11th best record in the league. His teammates included the likes of Nikita Korostelev, Pavel Gogolev, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Ryan Merkley, and Liam Kirk. This year, they swung a deal for Akil Thomas.

Here’s how his development has matched up with DeBrincat’s:

  • Pre-Draft season: 54 games, 27 goals, 28 assists, 185 shots = 3.4 shots per game, 15 sh%
  • Draft+1 season: 40 games, 46 goals, 26 assists, 219 shots = 5.6 shots per game, 21 sh%
  • Draft+2 season: ???

So on the one hand, he seems to be one year behind DeBrincat. However, it’s worth remembering their respective ages in those same seasons. Nick Robertson was only days away from being eligible for THIS year’s draft in 2020, which would make his post-draft season his pre-draft season.

So how would their respective age 18 seasons compare? Since Robertson’s season is still incomplete, I’ll prorate his totals to the same amount of games as DeBrincat had:

  • DeBrincat: 60 games, 51 goals, 50 assists, 269 shots = 4.5 shots per game, 19 sh%
  • Robertson: 60 games, 69 goals, 39 assists, 329 shots = 5.5 shots per game, 21 sh%

So it actually looks like Robertson is pacing a bit ahead of where DeBrincat was. But hold your horses on the hype train, because there’s a lot of complications that could still block Robertson from the NHL next year.

Forget DeBrincat, Just Tell Me that Robertson Will Make the NHL Next Year!

I’d love to tell you that, I really would. From a pure goal-scoring perspective, his age-18 season is superior to DeBrincat’s. Heck, it’s even better than DeBrincat’s age 19 season, and he wound up making the NHL after that!

But that age trick is a double-edged blade for him. The fact that Robertson is so young relative to his draft peers does make his improvement more impressive, but he’ll still be a teenager next season. Even if you think he would be a surefire first round pick in this year’s draft if he was only born a few days later — as a premature birth no less! — he would probably not be a top 5 or even a top 10 pick.

You may quibble with that, but I’ve heard the same thing said from any number of prospect people whose opinions on that sort of thing I trust — and the same sort of people who were highest on Robertson and thought he should have been Round 1 pick LAST year. That’s not to say there is no chance for him to do it, and I would say he has a significant but still outside shot at it. For the record, here is what Kevin Papetti had to say when Arvind asked him this very question:

Can he? Or will he? He’s definitely got a shot (literally and figuratively). I still always get surprised when a 19 year old makes it. His shooting talent is pretty remarkable, and he competes enough not to be a liability. I’m not sure how many NHL players have more shooting talent than he does. Matthews, Laine, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Pastrnak, Scheifele, Pettersson are the big ones.

Robertson has the curl and drag writer, and a quick one-timer. Has the quickest wind up. Robertson might not be a high-end play-driver, but he works. Decently fast, but lack of size makes it hard to keep the puck out of a defenders reach. I guess Gaudreau does it at that size, but he flies.

Scott Wheeler also recently wrote a bit about Robertson in his ranking of the Leafs’ current prospects:

Since the beginning of the summer, Robertson has transformed from an injury-prone, diminutive winger with many pro qualities (a heavy curl and drag release, superb edge work and excellent hands chief among them) and middle six upside, to a star-level prospect with first-line potential.

Robertson has an overwhelming shot, a never-stop-moving mentality, a physical snarl and a net-driven approach to the game, all of which help him use those aforementioned puck skills to make NHL-level plays.

If he has a weakness, it might be his playmaking, where he can sometimes drop his head as he tries to beat defenders 1-on-1, even when there’s a simpler play to a teammate available. Furthermore, his reckless abandon, coupled with his size, could make him forever prone to injury and on the defensive side of the puck, he has been known to get hemmed into his own zone. He’s a blue-chip prospect though — and maybe the biggest piece of the now-contending Petes’ puzzle.

So we’re seeing similar things said about him by those who watch him a lot and who — I will add this personally — I trust quite a lot when it comes to assessing prospects. Robertson’s shot and goal scoring may already be NHL-ready, it’s the rest of his game and his smaller size that will hold him back.

Those are all things that can be improved over time, but the question is: will they improve enough by the start of next season, when the Leafs will have to make that decision? In an ideal world, he’d be good enough to make the NHL in the second half of next year after developing some more in the AHL.

Screw the CHL System! #FreeRobertson

Now we get to the big problem. It would be perfect for him to play in the AHL next year. He’s already a top scorer in the OHL, and it would be great to hand him off to the development trainers and skills coaches with the Marlies to work on those skills. But he doesn’t have that option, it’s either the NHL or the OHL for him. No middle ground.

While the agreement between the NHL and CHL is up this off-season and something MIGHT change, there isn’t a lot of expectation that it will. Not in a substantial way that will let Robertson play in the AHL next year.

So he has to be clearly good enough to make the NHL next season. We might see him get a taste at the beginning of the season if he sufficiently impresses in training camp, but it will be that nine game (or less) cameo. Do we think that he will be so good at the start of next season that he can force his way onto the NHL roster past that 10 game threshold?

A lot can change, of course, but the Leafs with a fully healthy roster have multiple options that can play the left wing who would be blocking Robertson there: Hyman, Johnsson, and Mikheyev at the very least, plus Engvall, even Kerfoot or Nylander have played there at times as well.

I’m having difficulty believing that he will make it, in the end. He is competitive and driven enough that he might have a crazy off-season to get strong enough, work on improving his skating and other skills a bit more, and the Leafs might use someone like Johnsson in a trade during the off-season.

If we’re going to view this season as basically his pre-draft year because of how young he is, keep in mind how rare it is for a draft pick outside of the top 5 or 10 to make the NHL their next season and be good enough to stick. The 2nd overall pick, Kappo Kakko, is struuuuuggling this year. Jack Hughes was the #1 pick and he’s been... okay? Those are two guys who would still be picked ahead of Robertson in any redraft, or if they were still available this year.

But here’s the good news. If we’re matching up Robertson’s seasons by his age with DeBrincat’s, that means he’s already pacing ahead of him. That would put him on the path to make the NHL not next season, but the year after when he would be 20. If he keeps taking more steps forward and improving the rest of his game, he could be a terror in his rookie year with a still-deep NHL team around him.

Now, do you want me to ramble on more about CHL agreements and DeBrincat, or do you want to watch Robertson rip some wristers?