The Maple Leafs practised in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon.
Nick Robertson has earned a look in Toronto's top six. The 19-year-old skated on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander at Saturday’s practice.
"The way he works is tremendous," noted Nylander. "He can complement us and we can give him the puck and get some good scoring opportunities."
Robertson played a career-high 14 minutes and 19 seconds against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, producing his first assist in the National Hockey League.
"He's played with lots of confidence with the puck and without the puck," observed coach Sheldon Keefe. "He's skating hard. He's out there looking to make a difference. He doesn't look overwhelmed by any means. He's getting more and more comfortable in the NHL. When he gets the puck, he's looking to make something happen. He's working and competing and he's been good defensively so lots of really good things."
Robertson was Toronto's top pick in the 2019 draft (53rd overall) and made his debut with the team in the playoff bubble last summer dressing in four games against Columbus and scoring one goal.
NICK ROBERTSON!— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) August 7, 2020
FIRST NHL GOAL! pic.twitter.com/mJeqVQv2i2
But Robertson has been plagued by injuries this year and Thursday was only his fourth game with the Leafs. He has suited up in 14 games in the American Hockey League.
"He played a little bit in the bubble last year so I'm sure his expectations were high, but those things happen," said centre Alex Kerfoot, who played on a line with Robertson in Tuesday's game. "He's still got the same energy and attitude that he's always had. You can tell when he gets out on the ice and has the puck on his stick that he can make things happen."
Great rush by Nick Robertson and he just misses his first regular season NHL goal. pic.twitter.com/5Qp0lh6hoh— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) April 16, 2021
Robertson, who scored 55 goals in 46 Ontario Hockey League games last season, is small in stature, but the 5-foot-9 winger owns an incredible engine.
"He's a fast guy," said defenceman T.J. Brodie. "The little guys are hard to hit sometimes and he uses that to his advantage down low and along the wall."
Robertson was among the last players on the ice Saturday staying out long after practice ended.
"The first thing that jumps out is just how hard he works," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "He wants to get better. He wants to put in the time and work hard."
After missing Thursday's game, Auston Matthews was back in his usual spot at practice on the top line with Alex Galchenyuk and Mitch Marner.
"In regards to Auston and Will, we'll have to see how they feel after skating today," said Keefe. "They got through the practice well today so that's obviously very positive, but we won't know their official status for the game until we see how they are through the remainder of the day and how they wake up tomorrow."
Matthews is dealing with a similar injury to the wrist/hand ailment that forced him to miss time earlier this season.
Nylander has missed the last five games while on the league's COVID protocol list. He skated on Friday as well.
"I feel good," he said. "I had a bike in the room so I feel pretty good."
The Leafs have lost three straight (0-2-1) and have missed the smooth-skating Nylander.
"How he brings the puck up the ice, how he gets through the neutral zone, how he attacks the offensive blue line, those are all areas [where] our offence has really dried up," Keefe said. "We haven't had nearly as much control of the puck so that's something that he does very well for us and it will be nice to have that back."
"He says he's feeling good," Rielly noted. "So, I think he'll be flying tomorrow. It's just nice to see him back around the boys."
If Matthews and Nylander return to the lineup on Sunday, Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks are expected to be scratches after they skated as extras at practice.
Engvall has played in 31 straight games dating back to Feb. 11, but the Swede is still adjusting to the centre position. He has produced just one assist in 10 games and was benched for part of Monday's game in Montreal.
Nylander earned praise from Keefe for immediately alerting the team about his situation on April 7 as the Leafs prepared to host the Montreal Canadiens.
"We got back from the road [trip on April 6] and I met somebody that tested positive for COVID the next day," Nylander recalled. "I had to isolate for nine days and had nine negative tests."
It was a stressful situation for the 24-year-old winger, who had skated with teammates only hours before learning about the issue.
"I was worried about maybe me getting it and giving it to the guys, which is something that I obviously really didn't want to happen," Nylander said. "Over those [first] few days where I was getting tested every day I was pretty nervous, but thank God nobody got it."
Nylander's return is leading to a shake up of Toronto's slumping power play. At Sunday's practice, the team reunited the group that had so much success together last season: Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Rielly.
"We probably would've gone to it sooner had we not lost Will," Keefe explained. "We've been talking about this look and going back with it for a while now, but that got disrupted. The timing is right now. The fact that we had yesterday to get some rest and a practice day today, it’s a good opportunity for us to just get refreshed and start anew if you will."
With Nylander playing down low and around the net, the Leafs had an amazing run on the power play last season. The team converted on 26.5 per cent of chances in 47 games after Keefe took over behind the bench, which ranked second in the NHL behind only the Oilers.
This season the team started with a more balanced approach featuring Matthews and Marner on one group and Tavares and Nylander on the other. It worked really well at first with Toronto sitting second overall in power play efficiently in early March at 32.5 per cent.
But over the last 17 games, the power play has fallen off a cliff with just one goal in 42 attempts and three shorthanded goals allowed.
"We talk about it every single day," acknowledged Rielly. "We talk about the structure. We talk about what we need to do better. It's just a matter of us grinding. It's obviously not very enjoyable, but we're going to work through it and breakthrough eventually and it's going to feel really good."
After playing in 375 games over five NHL seasons, Ben Hutton is eager to make his playoff debut.
"That's every kid’s dream," said the 27-year-old defenceman. "Growing up in Ontario, I always dreamed of playing playoff hockey or scoring that big goal in the playoffs. That's what everyone dreams about and now to get a chance to do that I'm super excited. I can't wait."
Hutton posted one goal and four assists in 34 games with the Ducks this season before being traded to the Leafs ahead of Monday's deadline.
"This year I haven't produced as many points as I'd like to," Hutton admitted. "The Leafs are a pretty offensive team so I’m hoping I can jump onto that wave and help out a little offensively. I want to be a strong PKer. I'm a defenceman and my first job is to keep the puck out of our end."
The native of Brockville, Ont. has spent his entire NHL career out west with stays in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
"Finally get to come back east so it's not as late for my parents to stay up and watch the games so that’s exciting," Hutton said. "The last [few] days, I've been getting texts from a lot of happy campers at home, a lot of Leafs fans. Even family members and friends who aren't Leafs fans are pumped up because they know the position the Leafs are in."
Lines at Saturday's practice:
Galchenyuk - Matthews - Marner
Robertson - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman
Thornton - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Marincin, Liljegren, Sandin
Power play units at Saturday's practice:
Matthews - Tavares - Marner
Galchenyuk - Thornton - Spezza