Marlies’ Robertson making up for lost time

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

Nick Robertson’s second pro season had started well enough.

Having just turned 20 years old a month earlier, the Toronto Marlies forward contributed a pair of assists in the team’s opening-night win over Manitoba on Oct. 16. But his season’s trajectory changed the following afternoon when Robertson fell awkwardly battling for a loose puck along the end boards behind the Moose net and broke his right fibula.

To the extent that there was a silver lining, at least Robertson’s non-displaced fracture did not require surgery. What the injury did mean was an ill-timed disruption to the intensive offseason work that Robertson had put in following a rookie season that he split between the Marlies and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had taken him as a 2019 second-round draft pick.

But Robertson, who did not return to head coach Greg Moore’s lineup until a Feb. 2 game in Grand Rapids, is making up for that lost time with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 23 outings with the Marlies.

“Time flies,” Robertson said of going through the rehabilitation process, “so I’ve got to make the most of when I’m injured and doing everything I can to come back.”

Looking for those silver linings has defined much of Robertson’s second year in the pro game.

Like many young forward prospects, the defensive side of Robertson’s game needed to develop further. His three-and-a-half months out of the lineup afforded him ample time to watch the game from a different angle and learn that way.

“I think I just kind of grew on what the [AHL is] looking like, watching a lot of games, and how the league’s played and what I can do to have success,” Robertson said. “I mean, it’s a different vantage point just to watch it without stress or any pressure, just watching the game and just seeing how the flow of the game is.”

He also used his time off the ice to work on fortifying his confidence, a side of his game that he admits has challenged him in the past and is a key area of focus in his development plan.

“Just trying to be as confident as possible and as consistent as possible,” Robertson acknowledged. “Not getting deep down on myself. That’s the main thing I try to work on.”

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

Another silver lining came when Robertson earned his first National Hockey League game of the season Feb. 26 and did so in Detroit, where he had spent part of his childhood before eventually advancing to play three Ontario Hockey League seasons with Peterborough.

And having had his 2020-21 season disrupted by injury also, Robertson at least knew how to manage the experience of going through the lengthy comeback process this time around.

“Unfortunately I have a good amount of experience with injuries given last year… so I kind of knew how to handle it,” Robertson told reporters via the NHL club’s website in February. “I think it was good just to test me mentally and challenge me to find ways to get better, and I think I resorted to a lot of game film and watching hockey and learned from that.

“It was good to start that different type of learning experience for myself.”

Robertson spent the better part of three weeks with the Maple Leafs, dressing for nine games before returning to the Marlies on March 19. Included in that run was his first regular-season NHL goal March 5, when he finished a two-on-one rush with Marlies graduate William Nylander against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Arena.

Now back in the AHL, Robertson and his Marlies teammates can ensure more of that high-pressure experience by earning a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs with a strong finish in their final six regular-season games ― three meetings each against Belleville and Laval. Robertson owns a six-game point streak (four goals, two assists) going into this week’s slate, which starts tonight with a visit to the Senators. Toronto, which has not missed the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2011, trails Rochester by .002 for the fifth and final playoff slot in the North Division.

Back in Peterborough, Robertson scored a league-leading 55 goals in 46 games during his final OHL season in 2019-20, more than enough to earn him a spot on the league’s First All-Star Team. But he only had a chance to play five postseason games during his three-year junior career. For someone who needs more game experience, period, Robertson knows what a chance to advance to the Calder Cup Playoffs could mean for his own development, as well as that of his young Marlies teammates.

“I just think it’s a different type of game,” said Robertson, whose NHL debut came in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubble in Toronto. “We’ve got to find ways to push through. I think that I can just learn how the hockey is way different [from] the beginning of the season toward the end of the season. Obviously I’ve only really played toward the end of the season, so I got the tougher half.

“I think it’s a good learning curve for me to kind of see how the game changes and how the mood and intensity shifts going into the playoffs. I think that carries into the NHL level when I’m there.”