Leafs' Robertson determined to regain confidence, scoring touch
TORONTO — Dial it back. Relax. Chill out.
It’s advice Maple Leafs’ prospect Nick Robertson is familiar with hearing. He’s just not yet ready to take it – not even when it’s coming, as it did on Thursday, from Hayley Wickenheiser, Toronto’s senior director of player development, at the outset of the Leafs’ annual development camp.
“I've heard it my whole life: I need to dial it back,” said the 19-year-old on a Zoom call Friday. “And I’ve always told [those people], ‘I'll dial it back when I know where I stand in my career.’ I can't tell you what a dialed back Nick Robertson looks like [yet]. It’s just how I was born and how I'm supposed to be; it’s going to take some time [to get there].”
That’s where Wickenheiser and the weekend’s rookie sessions come into play. Friday was the first day prospects were on the ice, and Wickenheiser had already delivered her message to Robertson loud and clear – whether or not he chose to heed it.
“One of the secrets for him might be to dial it back a little bit and just relax more into who he is as a person and as a player,” Wickenheiser said. “He has a full package of skill. A lot of what we spend our time talking about is working on the raw skills of skating and shooting but also letting the game come to you and don't force it and really just grow into who he is.”
Robertson has undergone plenty of transition over the past 18 months, both on and off the ice.
Drafted in the second round (53rd overall) by the Leafs in 2019, Robertson was having a career year (55 goals and 86 points in 46 games) in 2019-20 with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered sports operations. But Robertson’s future wasn’t in limbo for long – he wound up joining the Leafs to score one goal in four games during Toronto’s qualifying round playoff series against Columbus in August 2020.
Robertson had high hopes to stick with the Leafs right out of training camp in 2021, but was slowed by an injury. Then, in his season debut on January 16, Robertson hurt his knee and was sidelined again. He’d battle through another injury while appearing in 21 games with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, before finishing out his season with five NHL games in late April.
Since then, Robertson has focused on maturing his game. And he’ll fittingly leave his teen years behind with a 20th birthday looming on Saturday.
“Having multiple injuries during the year ruined my momentum and overall confidence,” Robertson said. “But now I'm healthy and ready to go. I'm not that 18-year-old coming in anymore; I’m getting older and it's [about] getting closer to accomplishing my goal, which is to play full time with the Leafs, whether it's now or in future.”
Given Robertson’s relatively longer tenure within the Leafs’ organization compared to other camp participants and his professional experience last season, it was almost a surprise to even see him at Toronto’s development camp again. The invitation was eagerly accepted by Robertson though, given his recent run-ins with adversity.
“It's kind of a conditioning camp for myself,” he said. “It’s getting back into game shape, getting back in the rhythm, getting the rust out in the scrimmages, getting my timing back. Last year I dealt with injuries and I was up and down so I wouldn't want to go into [NHL training camp this month] cold and having not had a lot of reps. So going into development camp and going to [rookie tournament] in Traverse City [next week] will give me a lot of reps and give me a lot of confidence.”
Wickenheiser said on Thursday she expected Robertson to act like a camp veteran too, and he grabbed hold of that role immediately. Robertson was the first player to take every drill on Friday, was spotted watching clips on the team’s iPad in between sessions and was visibly trying to outwork every skater around him.
It’s all part of Robertson’s master plan to recapture the dominance he felt carving up the OHL, and ultimately translating that success to the Leafs.
“I think it's my confidence [that needs to improve],” he said. “I could say [my goal] is making the Leafs but really, I’m gaining that confidence [first] because that's going to get me there. I want to gain confidence in my scoring touch, my rhythm, my energy; get everything where it needs to be again after last year. It was just difficult to deal with [the injuries] and now it's time to get back to what I can do.”
Whatever the next chapter of his career – and decade of his life – looks like for the California native, Robertson certainly doesn’t plan on mellowing out any time soon.
“There is just more to the mental side for me, whether it’s been being away from home and playing with injuries and messing around with my routine and not trusting the process,” he said. “But being healthy now, no doubt, and ready to go, I have implemented so many things in my sleep and nutrition, and instead of dialing it back, I’ve dialed it in even more to make sure I give myself the best advantage."