Leafs' Robertson determined to regain confidence, scoring touch
TORONTO — It’s Hayley Wickenheiser’s job to prepare Maple Leafs prospects for what comes next. At the conclusion of her first rookie camp as the team's senior director of player development on Monday, Wickenheiser felt confident that goal is being achieved.
"The feedback from players was that it was hard,” Wickenheiser told reporters. “And it's a message that we wanted to send to [them], that if you come to an NHL development camp, you have to be ready to compete and play every single day. The practices were demanding. The games were demanding. Their bodies were sore. [But] I was really impressed with the level of intensity, knowing that it's been a hard four or five days.”
The camp consisted of two days devoted to on-ice skills development and two days of scrimmages. Wickenheiser and her staff were focused on not just teaching the prospects, but seeing how they reacted to, and competed in, different situations.
At the conclusion of Monday’s scrimmage, Wickenheiser was putting together the Leafs’ final roster for this week’s rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where Toronto will take on prospects from Columbus, St. Louis and Dallas.
In the meantime, we look at three players who saw their stock rise during development camp, and a couple who showed there is still work still to do.
Nick Robertson (Drafted in the second round, 53 overall, in 2019 NHL Entry Draft)
Wickenheiser said on Thursday that it would help Toronto’s top prospect to “dial back” his intensity and let the game come to him a bit more. Robertson countered that he won’t be taking anything down a notch – at least not until his professional career is established.
The camp was Robertson's latest chance to put that commitment on display, and he was the opposite of mellow all weekend. Robertson was the most skilled player on the ice, and led with authority in each drill. When the winger wasn’t actively participating, he was checking in with skill coaches and watching clips on their iPads. His entire camp felt laced with a clear purpose to put his best game on display.
Robertson followed up solid drills work with a dominant performance in Saturday’s scrimmage. He tallied three of Team Blue’s four goals, making plays from in tight and above the circles. But beyond just scoring prowess, Robertson was relentless at both ends of the ice. On one sequence, Robertson’s stick broke in the offensive zone, so he raced to the bench, grabbed another and got back in position, only to flub his next scoring attempt and become visibly frustrated.
In the second scrimmage on Monday, Robertson was equally engaged, treating every shift like an audition for the assembled executives (including head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas) to judge. He and linemate Alex Steeves stole the show, generating four goals between them and showing off some burgeoning chemistry.
“I thought he had a really dominant camp,” said Wickenheiser on Monday. “He was able to distribute the puck and was taking the play that was there and the consistency he showed from practice one to the final scrimmage today...was good to see."
Where all Robertson’s hard work at development camp takes him remains to be seen. He said on Friday he’s still looking to build confidence after an injury-plagued season last year limited him to six NHL games with the Leafs and 21 contests with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
Robertson will use the rookie tournament in Traverse City to get as close to 100 per cent as possible – physically and mentally – before NHL camp opens on Sept. 22.
Alex Steeves (Signed three-year, entry-level contract as a college free agent out of Notre Dame in March)
There was a man among boys at camp, and that man was Steeves. The 21-year-old got off to a quiet start on the first day of drills, but by Saturday’s scrimmage, he was coming to life.
The centre is only listed as 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, but Steeves had no trouble overpowering players off pucks or shoving opponents into corners. He also complemented that physical game with some impressive offensive work.
Steeves was a top-notch playmaker during Saturday’s scrimmage, getting on the rush and dishing out passes for his linemates. He also showed off good instincts around the net, displayed good puck movement and even buried a goal of his own off a few blistering shot attempts.
On Monday, Steeves picked up where he left off offensively. He scored once off an early second-period rush, and then, after keeping the play down low, Steeves sent a quick wrister into the net off a pass from Robertson. It often felt like Steeves was one step ahead of everyone else, able to anticipate and react fast enough to give his team an edge.
“To me, he looks like a pro player on the ice,” said Wickenheiser. “He’s a man, and the way he’s built his off-ice conditioning is quite far down the line and he’s continued to put in the work. He’s got a good shot and he’s very powerful.”
Steeves was a point-per-game player for Notre Dame last season (15 goals and 32 points in 29 games) and it was clear as the weekend went on why Toronto wanted him in the fold. He’s an intelligent skater who can play at both ends of the ice, with grit and physicality to boot.
But doing that in rookie camp is one thing - the true test for Steeves will be whether he can bring those same strengths to Traverse City, and then into the Leafs’ and Marlies’ camps.
Mikhail Abramov (Drafted in the fourth round, 115th overall, in 2019)
Abramov has proven in the past he can score goals, most notably notching 35 in 63 games with the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers in 2019-20.
And the 20-year-old centre put out plenty of that high-powered offensive ability during scrimmages - he scored a terrific penalty-shot goal on Saturday and generated more opportunities for himself at 5-on-5. Abramov separated himself in part with good skating and edge work; on Monday he also seemed to use his shot more often and with increased confidence.
What also stood out in this camp was Abramov’s defensive side. At times it felt like Abramov played bigger than his 6-foot, 185-pound frame, showing off a combination of skill and smarts to win puck battles and assert himself.
He also got better as the weekend went on, allowing his intelligence to take over and maintaining those good positions in the offensive zone. He seems primed to get on with the Marlies’ this season in a top-nine role.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (Drafted in the second round, 76th overall, in 2018)
Der-Arguchintsev didn’t show particularly well at this camp, and he knows it. The forward admitted as much prior to Saturday’s scrimmage, saying “I did look pretty bad,” over the first few days.
Der-Arguchintsev did get a little better from there, but it was still a rough weekend.
In Saturday’s action, Der-Arguchintsev had his pocket picked a few times, and was easily pushed off pucks early on.
The 5-foot-10 forward claimed to have added some weight onto his 163-pound frame this summer and didn’t show the same speed he had putting up 75 points in 55 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes in 2019-20.
But Der-Arguchintsev elevated his play a bit in the latter half of the scrimmage and seemed to find more of a rhythm, without ever finding the back of the net.
On Monday, Der-Arguchintsev badly missed on his penalty shot attempt and couldn’t get much offence going for his team. He did control the puck better though and wasn’t as easily brushed aside.
Wickenheiser noted that the Leafs need to see more of a “shot-first mentality” from Der-Arguchintsev, but that didn’t materialize in the scrimmages.
The 20-year-old came into this camp following his first extended professional experience, with the KHL’s Torpedo (notching six goals in 17 games) and the Marlies (four assists in six games). Wickenheiser put Der-Arguchintsev in the same veteran category as Robertson going into the weekend, seemingly expecting to see more than what ultimately transpired.
“It’s got to be a question of consistency every day [for him],” said Wickenheiser. “And then being able to compete every day that he’s on the ice and elevate not only his game, but the players around him.”
Filip Kral (Drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2018)
Wickenheiser identified before camp that Kral needed to work on his off-ice conditioning, and the 21-year-old blueliner showed why in his play throughout the weekend.
While Kral used his body well protecting pucks, he had a difficult time keeping up with the opposition and was too slow getting shots and passes off. That said, Kral did show some improvement on that front later in Saturday’s scrimmage, when he seemed to read the ice a bit better and find his intended targets more quickly.
But that lack of consistency Kral displayed is a bit concerning, particularly on the defensive side. He might have shown better in Monday's scrimmage, but did not participate for reasons unknown.
Kral had a 10-game stint with the Marlies last season after finishing a 48-game stretch with Kometa of the Czech League, and the Leafs will be looking for him to take hold of a spot in the AHL for the coming season.