It is 9:45 a.m. and Nick Robertson is skating alone before Toronto Maple Leafs practice begins, spinning circles, working on his edges and stick-handling. His eyes focus forward. He wears the same look of intensity he has in seasons past, when he could safely be called one of the more determined members of the Leafs organization.
He’s on the ice alone because he wants to be. He lost an edge in the previous day’s skate and wants to feel confident ahead of the practice itself.
But truthfully Robertson is sick of skating alone. It’s what he did throughout the last few months as he worked his way back from season-ending shoulder surgery in January after taking a hit from Los Angeles Kings defenceman Matt Roy. It was yet another injury that cast further doubt over whether Robertson could have an NHL future.
“Being away from the guys,” Robertson said of what was the worst part of rehabbing from shoulder surgery. “Being with the team, but not being part of the team. That was what I missed.”
With him now fully recovered from shoulder surgery, there is a positivity and newfound tranquility in his voice and approach that was missing in past seasons. Robertson, 22, is smiling more than he has in the past, too.
All in all, even with the questions over whether he can stay healthy lingering over him, the left winger is approaching training camp with far more maturity. The young player who notably said in 2021 “I can’t tell you what a dialled-back Nick Robertson looks like” now understands the importance of patience.
And that might be what helps him stay healthy and finally land a full-time spot on the Leafs throughout an entire season.
“The destination is greater,” Robertson said, “when it’s the path less taken.”
There was a time when Robertson was the best prospect in the Leafs system.
The season after Robertson became a second-round Leafs draft pick in 2019, his patented powerful and accurate shot helped him score 55 goals for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes and land him on the Leafs playoff roster in 2020. He continued his high-flying ways in the bubble, scoring once in four playoff games.
In the three seasons since then, the stops have been more prevalent than the starts. A knee injury in his regular-season Leafs debut in 2020-21. A torn adductor later that season with the Marlies. A fracture of his right fibula early in the 2021-22 campaign with the Marlies, caused him to be out of the lineup until February 2022.
The hit from Roy in December 2022 sent Robertson into the boards and out of the season. Questions about Robertson’s development were rightfully asked. Robertson saw his spot as the next young hope in Toronto taken by Matthew Knies.
Injuries have robbed Nick Robertson of chance to develop with Leafs
“I know my name isn’t what it used to be. I don’t give a f—,” he said with a smile.
The changing Leafs depth chart since Robertson’s injury hasn’t changed the way he thinks about his NHL chances.
“I believe. I believe in anything,” Robertson said.
When he recalls the minutes after his shoulder injury, that belief becomes even more impressive.
He sat on the trainer’s table in Scotiabank Arena, surrounded by team trainers and Leafs management. Trainers popped his separated shoulder back into place, and Robertson, given his nature, quizzed the trainers.
Team doctors told him he could miss approximately eight to 10 weeks should he rehab the shoulder. He could live with that, at first.
Option two took Robertson by surprise: He could also elect to have shoulder surgery, which would keep him out for at least six months.
“I didn’t think it was season-ending at all,” Robertson said of his injury.
He received opinions from three doctors. They all agreed, according to Robertson, that there was a “70 to 90 percent chance” of reinjury and that surgery would eventually be necessary.
Robertson himself had to balance these opinions with the fact that in his last three seasons, he had logged 51 games with the Marlies and just 31 regular-season NHL games. Not enough for someone who is still “obsessed,” he said, with playing in the NHL.
But after the initial shock, Robertson asked himself a question he wasn’t prone to asking: What’s best for me long-term?
Robertson knew the 2023-24 season would be his last on his entry-level contract. A make-or-break season for his Leafs future?
“In the long run, I know this is an important year for me. I didn’t want to miss training camp. It was a tough decision for me. It really was. But it was something I had to be mature about,” Robertson said.
He told himself that returning at 80 percent health would only impede his chances of becoming a Leaf. Robertson also received emotional support from the Leafs organization, especially from then-GM Kyle Dubas and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who shared insight on then-Detroit Red Wings teammate Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall suffered a knee injury ahead of his second NHL season and missed more than half the season.
Kronwall eventually returned to have a storied Red Wings career.
Robertson opted for surgery. And he now hopes for the same long-term outcome for his career as Kronwall.
“I don’t regret it one bit,” Robertson said of the surgery. “It was the best decision for me. I don’t want to play hindered.”
His recovery prevented him from doing day-to-day tasks: He had to get comfortable shifting gears in his car with his left hand. He struggled to reach ingredients on the top shelf when cooking. And sleeping on his right side early on? No chance.
Alone with his thoughts in summer afternoons after spending his mornings skating, his message to himself was different than in past summers. He refused to let doubt about his NHL future creep into his mind. But he also refused to rush himself back to full health in the way he might have in the past.
“I don’t need to go downstairs and stickhandle. I know I’m tired,” he remembers thinking. “Something else might happen. I don’t want another injury.”
He’s become more selective about what he puts in his body to ease his recovery after workouts, avoiding white bread, for example.
“I know now what my body needs now,” he said.
The early returns on Robertson through two days of training camp? He is still driven on the ice, unafraid to return to the tough areas of the ice that have seen him land injuries. He calls for the puck in training camp practices as eagerly as he has in the past. And when that aforementioned shot comes off his stick, it looks like it can change a game.
The difference now, in 2023? Off the ice, patience is coming more easily to Robertson. During the first day of on-ice activities, Robertson lost an edge. He spent the beginning of his skate Friday laughing with Leafs assistant coach Manny Malhotra about it. Malhotra told Robertson to let the Leafs equipment staff know about his blade requirements and to not wear the entirety of falling in practice on his own shoulders.
In the past, that mistake might have lingered with the Robertson. But his time away from the ice allowed him to be at peace with the cards he’s been dealt.
“I put faith in myself and see where it goes,” he said. “God has a plan for me.”
What head coach Sheldon Keefe’s plan for Robertson is remains to be seen.
Noah Gregor joined the Leafs on a PTO and is taking what could be the final spot on the Leafs fourth line to start training camp. Robertson has skated on a line with other players on the bubble of the roster: Pontus Holmberg and Nick Abruzzese.
Yet, things can change once preseason games begin, especially if Robertson regularly produces offence. Should he prove he can play in the bottom six and still score, giving the Leafs some much-needed offence on their fourth line, Robertson could force Keefe’s hand.
Robertson is waivers-exempt this season, which could lead to plenty of back-and-forth between the Leafs and the Marlies.
“It would be pretty similar to his position last summer,” Keefe said regarding what Robertson needs to do to crack the Leafs roster. “Worry about his game, go out, play, compete, and make it obvious that he belongs on the team, can help the team, and can play in the league. I think he has done that at different times here and there. His ability to find ways to produce consistently in the regular season has been a challenge like it is for a lot of young players. He has to find his way through that.”
But Robertson can keep the faith that he can find his way through. He can do so by being armed with the understanding that Leafs GM Brad Treliving wants to provide a “path” to some of the organization’s younger players to make the roster, including Robertson.
“(Robertson) is a guy who is pedal down all the time, which I love,” Treliving said. “The one thing that has impeded Nick has been injuries, which you can’t control. What are his chances? Everybody has a chance.”
Robertson wants to turn that chance into NHL games, injury-free, once and for all.
“I always see the top of the mountain,” Robertson said.
(Photo: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)