Nick Robertson is 18 years old and stands just 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds, but there are plenty of signs the Peterborough Petes forward is ready to take the next step and play in the NHL.
"Mentally, I think I'm ready," said the Maple Leafs prospect. "Physically, honestly, I think I have the skill and the talent, but there's so much more than that. I'm definitely focused on getting bigger, faster and stronger. I can have the shot, I can have the hands, but you got to find the endurance in your game – you know, more leg strength. I'm not going to sit here and say, 'I'm playing in the NHL next season,' but I'm not going to sit here and say, 'I'm going to play in the OHL next season.' I'm putting my head down and grinding every day. I'll work hard, get better and see what happens."
It's scary to think what an improved Robertson would do in Peterborough should he return for a fourth season of junior hockey. Robertson, Toronto's top pick at the 2019 draft (second round, 53rd overall), led the Ontario Hockey League in goals this season with 55 in just 46 games.
He missed a month with a broken index finger, but that didn't slow his momentum as he finished with 86 points. Robertson also represented the United States at the World Juniors in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where he produced five points in five games.
"There's three things about Nick Robertson that can allow him the opportunity to play in the NHL as soon as next year," said TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button. "No. 1, he's exceptionally smart. No. 2, he never plays the game on an opponents' terms. He never tries to overpower players. He doesn't try to get into physical battles he can't win. He knows how to manage his space and his time and everything that goes with it, so he doesn't put himself in positions where he's at a disadvantage. That's an exceptional quality. And then, No. 3, he is not just a goal scorer, he's a player who holds the puck, makes plays with the puck, gives and goes so the puck moves off his stick. He's not just this player that needs to get into a spot to score. He's got a lot of elements to his game that makes him so good and so dangerous and makes him hard to mark."
The next few months may determine whether Robertson, who didn't get into a pre-season game during his first Leafs training camp, will make his mark in the NHL next season. With the CHL cancelling its playoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the off-season will be longer and, at least right now, the resources limited.
TSN spoke with Robertson by phone this week from his parents' home in in Sierra Madre, Calif. The teenager explained how he was able to take such a big step this season, listed his favourite goals and looked ahead to a future skating alongside Toronto's talented forward group. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Where did you grow the most this season?
"Everyone asked me, 'Oh, you just got a good shot over the summer?' But I've always had a good shot and it was the same shot. I think it was just the little details I added into my every-day routine that separated me from my peers. I added in more recovery work, a different diet, incorporating more upper-body workouts at night before I go to bed and all these little things. When we're playing on the road and the team gives you a certain meal, but you want to stick to what you like and what's healthy, so you make food earlier and eat that before the game on the bus, it's little things like that, sacrificing. I think what really made me have a good season were the little details I put in my game."
What's your go-to meal on a game day?
"My billet knows [chuckle]. It’s the same thing every day – it’s salmon, sweet potato and rice. I think I haven't changed it once this season at all."
So, 55 goals this season. Which ones stand out the most?
"Well, obviously, I would start with my 50th, that was something that it's an honour to reach that point. And one against Oshawa, it was on the PK and it was cancer awareness night and it was really cool. That's a special night for me, because my aunt passed away from cancer. And then maybe just the first game of the season against London. We had a pretty good passing play and I was so fired up in London scoring that goal, it was so cool. So, those three stand out to me."
You guys had the second most points in the Eastern Conference with a real chance to go on a long playoff run when the season was called. What sort of emotions did you go through when you got the news?
"Definitely disappointed. This year went by real fast, to be honest. How much work that not only the coaches and organization, but the players put in, we had practices in the morning, 8:15 in the morning, and we had all these workouts and stuff and you put in so much work and now it’s nothing. It kind of sucks, especially for the guys who know they're leaving or moving on. It's hard for them to bear that. Definitely heartbroken for them, but I know it's [about] more than hockey; it’s life, so rather be safe."
What do you want to accomplish in the off-season?
"Right now, I gained a few pounds. When you're skating so much it's hard to gain the much-needed muscle mass and I've never not skated for a week or two. So, I'm definitely adding a nutrition factor and doing lifts. I want to get my lower body, my glutes, hamstrings, very strong and my endurance to kick up. I think if I get that going and put on a little size it will definitely benefit me."
The OHL coaches poll came out on Thursday and you placed first in two Eastern Conference categories: best shot and most dangerous in the goal area.
"I've always had a good shot my whole OHL career. It's just, I think, this year I just showcased it. If you look at the stats, I think I had way more shots this year than I did last year averaging five, six, seven and even had one game with 10 shots. So, compared to last year, I just shot the puck more and if you get it on net and keep shooting eventually it's going to go in, so it definitely did for me this season. Again, everyone has little things that makes them [go] and when I'm getting shots off early in a game that's when I get confidence, that's when I score. It's an honour to be in that category from the coaches."
You finished second in the best shootout shooter category. Despite having a lot of offensive talent, the Leafs ranked at the bottom of the NHL in shootouts this season, so it's not always as simple as saying, 'Skilled guys have success in that situation.' Why are you comfortable?
"I don't know. It's just a way to showcase my skill. It's funny, I'm surprised I'm even on there, because I think I only had one or two shootouts this year. I have some moves that can throw goalies off and, I don’t know, [I’m] just confident in that area. Just try and read the goalie and sometimes you get lucky. I have a few moves. In practice you're so confident, but in games you can be a little nervous."
What are you most proud of when you think of what you accomplished this season?
"Probably representing my country, honestly. Winning the goal-scoring title was cool, but just to get the chance to represent my country on a big stage in the Czech Republic was something really cool and something I was really proud of and one of the best experiences I ever had in my life playing hockey."
What did you learn from that World Juniors experience?
"That I can hold my own. I mean, you play against the best players your age and future NHL players, future top stars and I think I held my own, had a pretty good campaign there. Obviously, it didn't work out to our benefit [with the United States losing in the quarter-finals], but I think I proved myself and proved my worth at that tournament."
What was it like coming home to California, which is a coronavirus hotspot?
"It's definitely crazy. I mean, I didn't realize how bad it was until I got here, especially going through the airport to get here. There were a lot of people wearing the mask and gloves and what not, and then you're on the flight and there's only 20 people so you kind of get worried. Back in Peterborough you didn't have to worry about it, but here in California where they've done a lockdown for, I think four weeks, it really sinks in. It is real and it's more than just hockey, it's life. So [I’m] just trying to maintain my physical shape and mental state as well."
What does your average day look like right now?
"Wake up early in the morning around 7:30 and make food and work out for about an hour and a half with my brother (20-year-old Dallas Stars prospect Jason Robertson) in the garage and then eat and then we do a stickhandling workout in the garage again and then carry on with the day. Then I do extra work, upper body or lower body depending on what I'm feeling, at night and then call it a day. And then do the same thing every single day."
You finished second in the OHL coaches’ poll in the best stickhandler category. How do you work on that?
"It can change. Sometimes I'm stickhandling through obstacles, sometimes I'm just stickhandling just to stickhandle. And then there's other things where I do band work where I have a rubber band wrapped around my right leg and onto a pole and I'm stickhandling while off-balance. So, there's little things like that. Nothing crazy. There's only so much you can do in a 20-foot garage."
You tweeted a picture of you and your brother playing a little garage hockey. Trying to keep things light?
"That was just for fun but, yeah, we sometimes do a little bit of that. We have the pool here too. I'm pretty occupied. I haven't been home in a while. So, it's an unfortunate time, but it's good to be back home."
Is there still a sibling rivalry between you and Jason?
"Ah, maybe when we were younger, but now we're just pushing each other, and he's got that little taste of the NHL and he's passing it on to me now. The rivalry is when we're playing four ball, but as far as working out, we motivate each other."
Jason made his NHL debut in Toronto this season, what did he share about that experience?
"He said, 'What a great atmosphere,' and he said that's probably one of the hardest teams he played against, so it's good to be part of the organization. It was funny, my parents were coming in to see me. They flew to Toronto and then they found out my brother was playing in Toronto, so they stayed there and luckily his first few games were in Canada. So, it was good for them to catch up and watch him and I know he's looking forward to a big training camp and hopefully he can play the full season in Dallas."
Did you watch a lot of Leafs games this year?
"Well, especially after I got drafted, I watched a lot of the Leafs on TV, and then Kyle [Dubas] got me tickets to a few games and the last game is when they got the emergency goalie in there [laughs]. That really showed me how much the fans get into it and they were chirping the guys and it was crazy. I mean, they were ripping the whole team. It was kind of funny, but obviously a tough moment for Toronto. I mean, it's unfortunate, but it was neat I was at that scenario, because if I'm in that position [under pressure], I know what the fans are thinking and stuff. So, definitely a big eye-opener for me. I had some buddies come down from Windsor because I had two days off and I had tickets, so it was quite an experience for them as well."
Did you know what was going on when Petr Mrazek got hurt?
"I saw [Kyle] Clifford blow him up and then I was talking to my buddies and they're like, 'Who's going to be in goal?' And then they had this guy come out and we Googled him, and I think he's the Marlies Zamboni guy, and now, it's amazing, this guy is popular and big on social media and Twitter."
When you watched the Leafs and they were playing better, what stood out?
"Just the talent. When they're on top of their game, they play with so much energy and they're one of the most skilled teams out there. I mean, they're definitely young for sure, so that's promising for the future. I mean, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, even Hyman – just guys like that are very talented and I just get excited when I watch them play. Watching them play in Scotiabank Arena, hearing the announcer, I just get fired up just seeing them score and thinking that could be me one day, so it's definitely pretty cool. I know Toronto is a big market in Canada and I don't think there's been a billet house I've gone to that didn’t have the Maple Leafs game on, so I'm excited to be a part of that."