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Top 25 Under 25: Nick Robertson is #11

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With only two 2019 draft picks on the list, Robertson doesn’t quite make the top 10.

2019 NHL Combine - Portraits Photo by David J. Parrotta/NHLI via Getty Images

The Man

Nick Robertson was acquired by the Leafs almost exactly two months ago, and he is not just the newest member of the prospect pool, he’s also the youngest. A few weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Robertson is the most unformed prospect, and also the one with the most time and chances to grow to his full potential.

Since drafting him, Leafs fans have had a chance to see him play for Team USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase, the annual tournament designed to help teams choose players for the WJC in December. After his performance at the WJSS, we should expect to see Robertson on Team USA at Christmas time.

The Myth

Robertson already has a mythology that might be overshadowing his actual value as a player. But the story is just so good, so Hollywood.

Born on 9-11 premature, he barely survived. Then when it came time for hockey, he hit the road to Michigan ... insert the vignette about trick-or-treating at Mike Babcock’s house ... then he moved to Toronto ... cut to the scene about the sacrifices of his mother, giving him his chance at a hockey career ... eventually he chose the OHL like his older brother did. Passed over in the first round of the draft, where some scouts had him ranked, he was taken by the team that showed interest in him at the combine, the team he had hoped would take him.

The Voting

Robertson is the second player unanimously ranked by all 17 voters after Jeremy Bracco on Friday. There is over one full ranking difference in their average votes, though, which is true for the players in this section of the ranking beginning with Petan and extending up to the player ranked 10th. The opinion that Robertson is above Bracco and below our mystery man at #10 is a firmly held one.

Nick Robertson Votes

Voter Ranking
Voter Ranking
elseldo 12
Arvind 13
Katya 10
Omar 11
Hardev 18
Species 11
Brigstew 11
Fulemin 10
Rahef 10
Emily 20
Will 12
Kevin 10
Gabriel 12
Daniel 11
Helen 13
Jensine 11
Mel 11
Average rank 12.12
Lowest Rank 20
Highest Rank 10
Spread in Rank 10
Total Votes 17

The community ranking for Robertson, where he landed at #20 and was ranked at all by only half the voters, shows a big gap between the general opinion of him and the 17 official voters. The community also ranked Jeremy Bracco well above Robertson in the top 11.

Robertson v Bracco

In Bob McKenzie’s pre-draft consensus rankings issued in June of this year, Robertson was ranked 42nd. McKenzie’s list comes very close every year to the ultimate selections, with most players moving up or down only a handful of places. So at 53rd, Robertson was taken right where the average of McKenzie’s list of draft watchers placed his value. In 2015, Jeremy Bracco was ranked on McKenzie’s June list at 53rd, and he was ultimately taken at 61st. The quality of players varies in a draft from year to year, but for two superficially similar wingers to end up taken so close together in the draft, it’s natural to compare them.

Bracco was drafted from the USNTDP off of a team featuring Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk. He was committed to Boston College, but switched over to the OHL post-draft, so once Robertson has a post-draft season in the books for the Petes this year, we can compare their seasons, but for now, looking at Bracco’s post-draft season and Robertson’s pre-draft, it’s clear that Bracco got more points, but Robertson scores more goals.

For Bracco, the percentage of his total points from his own goals fell from 31% to 25% as he moved from the OHL to the AHL, and that’s one of the things that has cooled off some of the opinions on Bracco. He is totally reliant on his playmaking for offensive success, and that makes him only as good as whoever he’s passing the puck to, no matter how well he passes it.

Meanwhile, Robertson scores 47% of his OHL points himself so far, with two years in the league at age 16 and 17. He’s played exclusively at wing on the Petes, but he’s much more of a sniper than a setup man.

Scouting Robertson

Robertson, who played on a line this past year with the low-ranked Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, shows the same growth in shot location at even strength that I discussed when profiling Der-Arguchintsev. In 2018, he was shooting from good locations, but he wasn’t concentrating his fire at the goal mouth like he does now.

You can also see very clearly that what was a very defined power play in 2018, got more experimental, so I’m not willing to fault the players on the Petes for the decline in their power play success, although Robertson’s power play Primary Points per game actually went up.

With evidence that Robertson showed the sorts of improvements beyond points rates we want to see leading into the draft, it’s hard not to like this selection, and feel very good about his future prospects.

For a comprehensive look at Robertson as of two months ago, take a look at the MLHS story on him:

Everyone quoted there seemed to mention his points rate as a negative, but then discounts it in favour of talking about how he plays. But his points pace is hardly a big knock against him. If you just look at OHL players in their draft year last year, Arthur Kaliyev (drafted 33rd overall) is first in even-strength Primary Points per game played with .73. Following him are Connor McMichael (25th), Philip Tomasino (24th), Ethan Keppen (122nd), Jamieson Rees (44th) and Robertson. He’s right where he should be in points, given his draft position.

The verdicts from all the scouts quoted by MLHS were all very positive. This is Kevin Papetti’s conclusion:

Robertson was available at 53 simply because of his position and size. There were plenty of safe picks in the 20-50 range as teams loaded up on big and fast players who have a strong chance of making the NHL in some capacity. Robertson has a better chance of being a difference maker at the NHL level. I think that is worth the risk. I expect him to take a big step forward in the Ontario Hockey League.

Post-Draft

At the WJSS this summer, Robertson impressed again on Team USA after a good Hlinka last year. He played one of the games at centre, as well, and saw some time on ice with Arthur Kaliyev, who he has had good chemistry with in the past.

The Leafs Nation covered the USA vs Finland game at the WJSS:

Robertson’s transition game was also strong, as it always tends to be. When Robertson has the puck on his stick, he’s looking to maintain possession for his team. If that means he has to send a sneaky pass back to a defenceman rather than try to deke through three opposing players (which he is also capable of doing), he’ll do it. If that means he has to hold onto the puck for an extra second instead of rushing a pass, he’ll do it. If that mean’s he has to send a tricky long pass to a teammate up the ice, that’s also a route he can and will take.

Everyone who scouts Robertson loves a lot of different aspects to his game, but the thing the Leafs director of scouting, John Lilley, mentions time and again when discussing Robertson is his work ethic.

“He’s driven, and that’s part of what we like about him is, aside from the skill and the hockey sense, this kid lives, breathes and eats hockey,” Lilley told The Athletic. “I can’t give you a first line or second line, but we certainly have high hopes that he’s going to be an offensive player at the National Hockey League level in time.”

There’s a belief out there that there is a “Dubas-type” player and a “Babcock-type” player. Dubas players are small, skilled, smart and mobile, with offensive upside. Babcock players are tough, hard-working, dedicated and driven. It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking those are mutually exclusive sets of skills, but if you put the man and the myth together, Nick Robertson is proof of concept that those two types can be one person.

Brigstew: I love everything about Robertson. I love that whenever he speaks he sounds like he took a challenge to out-do Babcock when it comes to Babcock-isms. I love his personal story. I love that he is some hybrid beast of a waterbug and a bulldog who will pursue you to hell and back if you dared to have HIS puck. I love that he has a wicked shot. All of that put together and I’m dreaming of a future where he is the next evolution of Zach Hyman to play with Matthews and Nylander. I think he can quickly become a fan favourite.

Fulemin: Fun fact: this is my fourth T25U25. And in the blur of people angrily yelling over fringe prospects whose names will be lost to history by Christmas, I’ve noticed a few trends among my hits and misses: even for a numbers-ish website like ours, it sometimes really is a good sign when coaches rave about a player’s drive. Not that it ever matters more than skill, but married to skill, when it’s as much drive as Nick Robertson has, I think it’s a pretty good sign the kid’s going to play. With all he’s got going, I’d bet on Robertson being an everyday NHLer eventually ahead of any other F in the system.

Conclusion

Robertson, at 17, hasn’t done a lot yet beyond his two years of OHL hockey. He’s was good in the Hlinka tournament last summer, scoring four goals and adding an assist to be a point-per-game player for the USA. But the Hlinka provides us all with a cautionary tale about taking youthful success too seriously. The top of the all-time points list for the Hlinka is Kirill Kabanov, who had eight goals and five assists in eight games. He won a silver medal in the U18 WJC, and won the QMJHL championship and the Memorial Cup. And absolutely none of that ever translated to pro hockey. He’s playing in the Danish league now, which is a semi-pro league.

Robertson needs to put in years of work, dedicate himself to the game, and develop every scrap of talent he has, and if he does that, he should hit his stride in his second or third year of the AHL just like Bracco has. The potential is there in the versatility of his game, and in his individual scoring skill to outpace Bracco and be that top-six offensive player. But if he falls short of that, he seems to have more arrows in his quiver than Bracco has. Robertson doesn’t need to rely on the quality of his linemates quite as much.

But Bracco has arrived where he is right now with a very high points rate in the AHL in one season. He’s not just potential, he has a set of results to his name. So, it’s understandable that some voters might shy away from assuming that Robertson will succeed as well as Bracco has. There are so many possible futures for him, after all. Denmark and the NHL is a wide range of outcomes.

But what sways me is that Robertson right now is focused on improving all of his game. That work ethic talk is real, and he’s not going into the next four years of his hockey development thinking he’s going to coast on his skill. He is just potential embodied within one teenage kid, but that potential is enough to carry him past Bracco, so that by the time he’s heading into his third year of pro, he’ll be forcing his way into the equation on the Leafs. If it all goes his way, that is. There are no guarantees.

No one is ever going to be waiting for him to start taking things seriously, though. He’s been doing that for years. That’s why I ranked Robertson well above Bracco, and why I think Leafs fans should forget the minor league pros filling up the Leafs prospect pool and believe in the newest and youngest prospect in blue and white. Betting on the known quantity is a safer play, but you don’t want to be caught looking surprised like Robertson likes to leave the goalies when this young man proves his potential is real.