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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Nick Robertson is by far the youngest, least experienced player that the Maple Leafs included on their return to play roster for training camp, but you’d never know it from the flood of expectations he rolled in on. And since there’s no use hiding from the hype, Robertson’s content to ride the wave. 

“I'm definitely aware of the Toronto social media [conversations] for sure,” Robertson said over a Zoom call with reporters on day three of camp at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday. “I know my name has been put out there a lot. I try to not really look at that stuff and carry on with not hearing outside noise, but it's good to hear some positive stuff. I’m glad to have the Toronto fans on my side but it's what my teammates and the coaching staff think of me [that's important]."

It’s hard to fault Robertson for courting so much attention, given the season he just had. The 18-year-old winger led the entire CHL in 2019-20 with his astonishing 55-goal, 86-point campaign for the OHL's Peterborough Petes, earning the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year distinction in June for his efforts. 

It was a prolific season Robertson might have struggled to see coming in September. Back then, he entered Toronto’s training camp as the organization’s top prospect, fresh from being selected in the second round, 53rd overall, in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 

But rather than give him a long look, the Leafs sent Robertson packing three days in as one of the camp’s earliest cuts last fall. 

In hindsight, Toronto’s general manager Kyle Dubas admitted that wasn’t the right move, and when word of the NHL’s return to play plan came down in the spring, Dubas knew Robertson deserved a second chance. 

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should have given [Robertson] more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there,” Dubas told reporters in March. “But he went back to Peterborough, he had a great attitude and he was an excellent player. Come [next] training camp, we'll give him every opportunity to potentially make the team and put the ball in his court.”

The Leafs have delivered on that, placing Robertson right in the thick of their 34-man camp. He's the only player involved without any professional hockey experience, and the first three days of practices and scrimmages have been expectedly challenging. 

“Everyone's just a lot smarter and their experienced and it's definitely an eye-opener for me when I'm out there,” Robertson said. “There's a lot of stuff you can get away with in junior and now it's different. The time and space is definitely taken away, but I think I'm going to catch on to it pretty quick.”

Robertson wasted no time jumping on board the Leafs’ return to play plan, either. He arrived back in Toronto from his off-season home in California well ahead of Phase 2’s voluntary workouts starting, so he could serve a 14-day quarantine and get right to work. And there have been no shortage of lessons being taught since. 

“It’s just the little details,” he said. “It’s a lot faster pace. You can have a lot of skill but you have to think and you have to work within the system and find ways to take advantage of not only a skill but just your mind and I think that definitely was shown when I got here for Phase 2 and working out and how detailed the practices were and the scrimmages as well. I'm still trying to learn but I think I'll get onto it pretty soon.”

Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has no doubt Robertson will find his way eventually, and that those outsized expectations attached to him now won’t affect the way Robertson approaches his craft. 

“That's part of being a talented, high-end prospect for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Keefe said of the attention. “But he's earned that, because he's had the season he had in junior hockey. It's not matched by very many people in history and he's shown what he's capable of doing by the results that he had. So he's earned that [spotlight], but it’s enhanced like everything else. He's got to tune that out, and just do his work and I'm not concerned about him. He's an extremely focused individual.”

And a popular one, too. Robertson’s teammates have been singing his praises for days, and are eager as anyone to see him take the next step.

“Since he's come in, he's been a little water bug out there,” said Cody Ceci. “He's flying around, he's got a good shot. He's doing great; he’s really opening some eyes.”

“He's a tremendous player,” added Jack Campbell. “I love his work ethic and his dedication. He's one of the most prepared kids at his age that I've ever seen personally. He's giving it his all. He’s got a great shot, he’s a great talent and a nice kid and works his tail off.”

Robertson’s shot has become a hallmark of his game, a skill he’s diligently honed since childhood but that only really emerged for him “in the last couple of years.” As a smaller player (5-foot-10, 164 pounds), Robertson’s always strived to set himself apart in other ways, and that’s the energy he brings daily to the Leafs’ ice.

“I think I just have to compete,” he said. “The only thing I control is my work ethic, and whether you're having a good game or not, I think just the work ethic has to separate me from others and I'm trying to do so here. As the week goes, I think I'll get even more comfortable and try to get back to my game and try to get more puck touches and a lot more shots.”

Whether that leads to Robertson cracking the roster for Phase 4, or waiting until next fall’s training camp to try again, he’ll take the decision in stride. After all, this is just the beginning. 

“It's definitely exciting [being here],” said Robertson. “I couldn't tell you a year ago that I'd be in this position. It's definitely another opportunity and right now I'm just trying to learn as much as possible. So much has been thrown at me, a lot of curveballs, a lot of stuff I didn't really expect but I'm trying to adapt to all that and learn as much as possible and be  a sponge and a student while I'm here and just try to be as competitive as possible.”