Dr. Wickenhesier prescribes 'competitive environment' at Leafs' development camp
TORONTO — Nick Robertson is still two days out from his 20th birthday, but the Maple Leafs already see their top prospect as a veteran. At least when it comes to development camps.
He'll be among 39 players Toronto is hosting for its annual rookie sessions this weekend, after the club conducted camp virtually last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And when everyone takes the ice once again, expectation is for Robertson, a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, to be taking charge.
“Our message to [guys like Robertson] is that you're not here to just participate and develop; you're here to step up and lead and show why you belong at the next level and work on your leadership skills,” said Leafs’ senior director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser on Thursday. “We do have a chunk of players that know the drill, and they've been around and they don't necessarily need to learn all the things that they learned in their first development camp but they would be expected to step up and lead. We do expect more from those players that have been around.”
Robertson, who turns 20 on Saturday, will be the only prospect in attendance with NHL experience. He skated in six games for the Leafs last season, registering one assist, and scored one goal in four appearances during Toronto's qualifying-round playoff series against Columbus in 2020.
While Robertson may be ahead of the curve professionally, he’s been in the same boat as most camp attendees when it comes to recent playing time – or a lack thereof. Because of COVID-19 related shutdowns, Robertson hasn’t played for the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes since the 2019-20 campaign. Other than his limited NHL action, Robertson has only appeared in 21 games for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies over the last two years.
Wickenheiser kept that in mind while designing this year’s development camp, her first major project since being promoted in May to head the Leafs’ player development.
“Just thinking about some of these young guys that have not played hockey in over a year, that's a really tough thing both mentally and physically,” she said. “So we acknowledge that; we know that COVID has had a real impact not only just on hockey but on their lives. What we want to do is not hammer them early on, but we want to put them in a situation where they can relax into playing the game again and compete and demonstrate their skills.”
As Wickenheiser describes it, this weekend’s work will be about “a little less thinking, and a little more playing and competing” so the Leafs’ staff can assess where each player is at in terms of their “full package” of skills.
Normally, this work would be done at a rookie camp in June. But COVID-19 delayed the NHL calendar well into the summer months, and teams had to pivot accordingly. That means some prospects, like 2021 second-round pick Matthew Knies, won’t be participating this year; Knies remains in the United States where he’s getting set for freshman year at the University of Minnesota.
But physical distance will hardly prevent Wickenheiser and her staff – including Director of Development and Operations Will Sibley and Director of Player Development Danielle Goyette – from keeping in touch.
“Our goal is to have multiple touches with the players so we're in contact with every prospect about every two weeks,” Wickenheiser said. “We just spent several video sessions with [2021 fifth-round pick] Ty Voit and Knies going through clips with them. I'd like to increase the amount of touches and contact we have with the players in multiple different forms, and make sure that we're closely tracking how they're progressing through the season so we can identify areas of their game that we maybe can help them with as they go forward.”
There’s a lot of different needs to keep track of, but Wickenheiser is an expert at finding her balance. While ascending through Toronto’s front office, Wickenheiser was also finishing medical school in Calgary and is currently doing an ER rotation at a downtown Toronto hospital. She was on night shifts leading up to the Leafs’ camp starting on Thursday, and will be back to medicine when things wrap up on Monday.
Fortunately for Wickenheiser, the three years she spent as an assistant until former Senior Director of Player Development Scott Pellerin and Director of Player Development Stephane Robidas gave her a good foundation to start from which to begin.
Now, just like Robertson, it’s her turn to take the lead.
“In this development camp, we’ve opted to create a competitive environment versus a teaching environment,” she said. “We've introduced concepts into gameified drills where we want to see how players think the game, how their compete level is, what type of character they can demonstrate under difficult circumstances. And then ultimately [reveal] their top-end skill. That really separates the best players from the next level down as you go up within the system. That’s what we are trying to isolate and trying to get a read on with these players that we have in a very short time over these four to five days.”