TORONTO – Nick Robertson is ready to go again.
After another year that has seen injuries slow on his rise, the 21-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs is back cruising around the ice at the Ford Performance Center in Etobicoke, Ontario, on Wednesday preparing to host another potential tournament in Traverse. City, Mich. , this week—and yet another attempt at becoming an x-factor for Maple Leafs.
It’s just another chance to get some reps in the game,” Robertson said after training. “I think I’ve been on vacation for three months or so, and I definitely want to be in shape when it really matters, get into pre-season and go to camp with the Leafs.”
The 2019 second-round pick doesn’t have much to prove against his would-be blue-and-white teammates, his real rival poised to take on the ice at that main training camp. But Robertson is well aware of the eyes that will be on him at Traverse City as he watches to see how he handles his role as a young veteran.
“It sure is [about] Play the right way. “I will definitely play more minutes, and I will rely on a more leadership role now,” he said of his goals for the tournament, which runs from Thursday to Monday. “I definitely want to put that expectation and put pressure on myself to do well and play well.”
For assistant coach Manny Malhotra, who is set to serve as head coach for the Traverse City Championship squad, these are exactly the kinds of boxes he and his crew expect the young Maple Leafs to check out.
“The important thing for us in the camp is that we want to see their competitive nature,” Malhotra said. “How are they going to compete? Do they have the ability to challenge locations? Do they take the information and apply it instantly in games? It’s hockey IQ. We are looking for them to perform at their best and to show us what they can do.”
As for Robertson, Malhotra said the young winger’s desire to make progress at Traverse City was already clear.
“Just seeing him on the first day and the last two days, he has prepared well. You can see that he is eager to perform and succeed with his goals this year,” the coach said. My role in this Traverse City camp is to prepare the best players like him, guys like Alex Steves – guys who are looking to take the next step – just make sure they are ready for main camp and give their best performance.”
Robertson has been in an off-season of toil and progress after a 2021-22 campaign that saw him battle more injuries, produce an average of one point per game over his 28 games for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL last season, and tally. His first regular season goal in the National Hockey League during 10 games with the big club.
With his already undeniable skill on the sheet, work focused this summer at the gym.
“It’s getting bigger and stronger,” he said of his off-season focus this time around. “I think I’ve gotten a little bit thicker in the legs and upper body, and I’m stabilizing on the ice. … Sometime in the summer I was about 185 in weight, and then kind of boiled over. I think the main focus sometimes as a smaller person is that I have to You have to gain weight, but I guess for me, I just added thickness, and added more foundation.
“I did better on my bike test than ever before, so my numbers definitely crossed the ceiling.”
As he looks to take the next step in his career, there may be no better mentor for the young Robertson than the man who will captain the bench on this four-game list at Traverse City. Who better learn from a previous first-round pick who had to rock through some slow starts in the big leagues, for months in the minors, before turning himself into a daily NHLer – and staying there for 16 years?
Few have a better understanding than Malhotra of the need to push, grow and adapt to finally find a way to that desired life on the ice, under the spotlight. And the key to unlocking that next step, in Malhotra’s view, is more than just stacking shader reel plays.
“Obviously everyone who comes to camp has the potential to play hockey really well,” the coach said with a smile. “So I think the most important thing to being a professional is consistency. Just keeping that level of professionalism, peak performance, on a daily basis, not having those valleys and peaks in the way you play, is number one.
“The number two is just understanding the game – applying the systems, being in the right place at the right time, creating the plays you expect to make.”
Robertson will have another chance to prove he can deliver that consistency, that pro consciousness, starting Thursday, when the Toronto prospects face the Dallas Stars junior side. Clashes against prospects from the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings will follow, before the 21-year-old moves to the Toronto main camp, and into pre-season.
Whether that month-long stretch ends with Robertson still wearing a Maple Leafs jacket or another trip back to the AHL, he keeps his focus solely on the process.
“I think, for me, it’s just I do what I can and play the way I can,” he said of the road ahead. “I know that I am confident, that I am a player of this caliber.”
Maple Leafs assistant general manager Ryan Hardy, who oversees the Traverse City team, is inclined to agree.
“If you look at last season in particular, he played 28 MLS games and scored 16 goals,” Hardy said of the organization’s young sniper. “This is a clip of 40 goals, of a kid who just turned around  the other day. this is unbelievable. He’s very excited, he’s a guy who loves hockey, so I think he’s pretty much knocking on the doorstep.”
And so it comes to another potential tournament, another training camp, and another prep season. Another chance for Robertson to show the Maple Leafs brass that he’s the player he thinks he is – and the player they think he is, too.
“You know, every year I would say, ‘This is my year.’ Every year I try to make the team. Even when I was drafted three years ago, I wanted to make the team,” Robertson said. “My obvious goal is not to go back to MLS, My goal is to play in the NHL like every year. Nothing has changed. So, in terms of team-building opportunities, it’s up [Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe].
“But for me, I have to put myself in the best position to do it.”