As the NHL announced its return-to-play plan last week, we learned that each team will be able to carry 28 skaters on its playoff roster.

Just one day later, Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas confirmed that 18-year old forward prospect Nick Robertson will have every chance to be included in this group once training camp opens.

This should be no surprise to Leafs fans, as the Ontario Hockey League shut down its season and Robertson is certainly one of the 28 best players in the organization. If nothing else, being able to train and practice with the team will benefit Robertson, and just hanging around an NHL roster during a playoff run will provide a great learning experience. Frankly, including Robertson on a roster of this size would be a complete no-brainer for me.

The big question now becomes: Will he actually get into the lineup? Robertson won’t turn 19 until September, and the Leafs have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL. The fact that Ilya Mikheyev is expected to be 100% does not help Robertson’s chances, but if any 18 year old is going to crack an NHL playoff lineup, I’d bet on the one who scored 55 goals in 46 OHL games this season. While Dubas did not promise that Robertson would be in the roster or lineup, he did not rule it out, either:

Evaluating Nick Robertson’s fit in the Leafs lineup 

There’s no guarantee that Robertson will get into game action, even if an injury occurs up front. It’s uncommon for 18-year-olds to make their NHL debut in the playoffs, and if Robertson doesn’t “wow” everyone at practice, Sheldon Keefe will have a handful of players with NHL experience to choose from. That being said, let’s see who Robertson will be competing against in a healthy lineup.

Playoff Lineup Locks (8):

Zach Hyman Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares William Nylander
Alexander Kerfoot Kasperi Kapanen

 

Assuming Mikheyev is back, eight of the twelve lineup spots are complete locks. In fact, they’re all near locks for the top nine, so Robertson would either have to earn the remaining spot or take a role on the fourth line. In addition, I consider Spezza to be a near-lock given his production under Keefe, his experience, and his face-off ability. I also consider Clifford to be a lock given his experience, style of play, and the fact that the organization speaks highly of him.

Zach Hyman Auston Matthews Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev John Tavares William Nylander
Alexander Kerfoot Kasperi Kapanen
Kyle Clifford Jason Spezza

 

This leaves two spots for Robertson, Pierre Engvall, Denis Malgin, and Frederik Gauthier. Other possibilities include Adam Brooks, Nic Petan, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, and Egor Korshkov, but given how little they played for the Leafs this year, they aren’t considered to be Robertson’s main competitors in a healthy lineup.

Since all of Spezza, Engvall, Gauthier, and Malgin can play center, there’s no real roadblock for Robertson in terms of position. With Clifford penciled in for the 4th line left-wing role, the best fit for Robertson would likely be on the left side of Tavares or Kerfoot. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Engvall’s speed, two-way play, forechecking, and penalty killing ability, so I consider Gauthier and Malgin to be Robertson’s main competitors.

Advantages to playing Nick Robertson

Five-on-Five Offense

The biggest advantage Robertson carries over Gauthier and Malgin is goal scoring. His ability to generate shots on goal is remarkable, as he led the OHL with 5.54 shots per game this year. He’s got a wicked one-timer and his ability to get his shot off quickly will translate seamlessly to the NHL level. His wrist shot is deceptive, so he’s able to regularly beat goalies with his shot from medium-danger areas.

Both Gauthier and Malgin do not offer much in terms of goal scoring. Unless they generate a shot within eight feet of the net, they probably aren’t going to be putting the puck in the net. Scoring ten goals in a single season would be a bit of a surprise for them, and if I told you that one of these three players was set up with a scoring chance, you’d certainly want it to be Robertson who was taking that shot.

Gauthier and Malgin simply aren’t scoring from this part of the ice often:

Robertson’s ability to get his shot off quickly will seamlessly translate to the NHL, where the Leafs simply do not have this type of shooting talent in their bottom six. Give him a screen in front, and he can score at 5v5 from the top of the faceoff circle:

It’s not like he has to be set up, either. His curl-and-drag wrist shot allows him to produce all by himself, and there are not too many players on the planet who can shoot like this:

Ultimately, Robertson’s shiftiness and wicked release will allow him to generate more shots on goal than Gauthier or Malgin, and he’ll be able to beat goaltenders from further out as well. While playmaking isn’t his calling card, he’s also a better playmaker than Malgin and Gauthier, but you don’t want him passing up shot opportunities often. He brings more 5v5 offense to the table. In a short series, an extra goal or two can make a major impact.

Power Play

The Leafs haven’t had two good power-play units since James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak left Toronto. Auston Matthews and William Nylander used to play on their second unit, since Marner’s unit was just so damn effective. The team just doesn’t have that same advantage any longer; while playing the top unit more has helped, they’ve never quite reached the level of success they had back when they had two good units.

The Leafs could build their entire second powerplay unit around Robertson’s shot. He doesn’t need to rely on a high-end playmaker setting him up, as he can score off a simple pass from a defenseman:

There’s really no way to defend this. Many of NHL’s top powerplay units over the years — such as Tampa Bay, Washington, Boston, Florida, and Winnipeg — are so dangerous because even when their opponents defend well, they have a shooter who will put the puck in the net anyway. While I wouldn’t put Robertson’s one-timer in the same class as Stamkos, Ovechkin, Pastrnak, Hoffman, or Laine, his shot is certainly going to be a weapon, and one that we rarely see on a second power play unit. Here’s another example of him scoring off a simple pass from his defenceman:

With both Robertson and Spezza on their one-timer side, and one of Rielly or Barrie on the point, the second unit would have all the tools to be successful. He would transform this unit completely and help to ensure that the Leafs take full advantage of the full two minutes with the man-advantage.

Robertson’s also a talented penalty killer and will one day play major minutes for the Leafs in this area. His quickness, intelligence, and tenacity allows him to provide plenty of value in this area. I watched him come awfully close to scoring a short-handed hat trick against Niagara this year. However, I don’t expect an 18-year old to kill penalties in a playoff series, especially with Marner, Hyman, Kapanen, Engvall, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot already on the roster. It’s his power-play ability that will be his calling card.

Disadvantages to playing Nick Robertson

While there’s a disadvantage to giving Robertson a chance to burn a year off his entry-level contract, I don’t see this being much of a problem for the Leafs. I expect them to ice their best roster, and if they believe that having Robertson in the lineup gives them their best chance to win, then he’s going to play.

The main disadvantage of playing Robertson is his 5v5 defense. Yes, he was a great two-way winger in Peterborough this year, but the NHL is a whole different ball game. Mitch Marner was an outstanding two-way winger back in London — and he’s strong defensively now — but his rookie season was a different story. NHL play is far more structured and Robertson will be facing stiffer competition than he’s ever faced before.

If Robertson did not impress defensively in the OHL this year, we might not even be having this conversation regarding whether or not he will play. It makes him a realistic option, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’d be an 18 year old in the NHL. He’ll win more puck battles than you’d expect from a 5’9″ teenager, but it’s tough to be an above-average defensive player from day one.

Both Malgin and Gauthier add value defensively. Malgin’s speed allows him to cut off opposing forwards and he always seems to be in the right spots. He doesn’t win a ton of battles, but he can add some transition skill to your fourth line, while also bringing some playmaking talent to the table. With 0 points in 8 games, Leafs fans didn’t see a ton from him this season, but I’ve seen enough of him in Florida to say that he’s a solid fourth-line forward.

Gauthier, rather than Malgin, is likely Robertson’s biggest competition up front (literally and figuratively). The 6’5″ center played in 61 of Toronto’s 70 games this year after playing in 70 (plus all seven playoff games) last year. The coaching staff seems to like him, and he’s used to playing low minutes. If you’re going to play your fourth line sparingly, and plan to load them up with defensive zone face-offs, Gauthier is a natural fit for the role.

Playing Robertson in your top nine likely means that one of Spezza or Engvall is your fourth-line center. Personally, I preferred both players on the wing this season, but I think they are each capable of filling the fourth-line center role. I’d be perfectly fine with a Clifford-Engvall-Spezza fourth line, but if you want to start Robertson on your fourth line, it’s a tad awkward if both him and Clifford on the same line. I also like Engvall’s size, speed, defensive play, and forechecking ability on the Kerfoot line. If Keefe opts to go with an Engvall-Kerfoot-Kapanen third line, I’m not sure if Keefe will bother playing Robertson seven minutes a night on the fourth line.

Sheldon Keefe played Gauthier on a line with Pierre Engvall and Colin Greening during the Marlies Calder Cup run, so there’s plenty of familiarity there. During that run, Keefe also scratched a talented undersized rookie winger who would have really helped his team’s power play. Gauthier does bring size, faceoff ability, and defensive skill to the table. If Keefe wants to run a boring fourth line, I think there’s a good chance that he stays in the lineup.

Final Thoughts

Robertson’s competitiveness, tenacity, and wicked shot is fun to watch. I’d like to see him get a chance in the playoff lineup. He generates a ton of shots on goal thanks to his general shiftiness and quick release, and he’s bound to be a high-end NHL shooter from day one. While it’s rare for an 18-year-old to make his debut in a playoff series, this is a rare situation, where CHL players are available due to canceled seasons.

If Marner was one year younger and had spent the 2016-17 season in junior, I have little doubt that he would have been a welcome addition to their playoff roster, even with 0 NHL games under his belt. While Robertson isn’t Marner, his shooting talent gives him the ability to impact a playoff series by creating something out of nothing and an extra goal or two could go a long way in a short playoff series.

I am a little bit pessimistic that Robertson will be in Keefe’s lineup for game one against Columbus. However, if it was up to me, he’d be playing over Gauthier and Malgin. If Robertson does play but does not impress, I don’t think there would be a significant drop-off in the team’s overall play. Scratching Gauthier and Malgin just isn’t going to be life or death in any series. However, if Robertson does impress, his scoring talent gives him a chance to provide significantly more value than Gauthier or Malgin.

The Leafs are going to need every extra goal they can get to make a deep playoff run in a conference with Tampa Bay, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. The risk associated with playing him seems relatively low, while the potential reward is quite significant. At the very least, if Keefe does end up scratching him, I’m willing to bet that Robertson’s drive and determination make it a difficult decision.