Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe sat down for a meeting with Nick Robertson earlier this week.
The message was simple: I know what you’re going through.
Keefe took over behind Toronto’s bench in November after the team fired Mike Babcock, going from relative anonymity in the American Hockey League to the bright lights of the NHL’s biggest media market in the blink of an eye.
Robertson, meanwhile, is an 18-year-old who has yet to play a single shift in the show, but has nonetheless grabbed the attention of the team and its fans ahead of the summer restart after topping the Ontario Hockey League with 55 goals in 46 games this season.
The five-foot-nine, 164-pound winger is part of the Leafs’ training camp roster and has turned heads with his shot, skill, work ethic and relentless determination as he looks to stick with the club that will meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-five qualifying round beginning Aug. 2 in Toronto.
“Overnight your world changes,” Keefe said when comparing Robertson’s situation to his own. “The media and all the different things that affect your relationships and family and friends … he’s experiencing some of that.
“The greatest challenge is to separate what happens in the room and what happens on the ice from what’s being said on the outside.”
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Selected 53rd overall at the 2019 NHL draft, Robertson admitted it’s impossible to avoid the hype after his banner season with the Peterborough Petes, who looked primed for a long playoff run before the novel coronavirus brought sports to a halt in mid-March.
“Definitely aware of the Toronto social media,” he said. “Especially being here now, I know my name’s been put out there a lot, but I try to put that aside.
“At the end of the day, it’s what my teammates and the coaching staff think of me.”
The reviews thus far have been overwhelmingly positive.
Robertson returned home to the Los Angeles area when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and was off skates for two months, but worked relentlessly adding muscle to his slight his frame before returning to Toronto to take part in voluntary workouts at the beginning of June.
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas trumpeted Robertson’s rigorous attention to detail with his fitness and nutrition during the break, calling him “a person who is as committed as any that I’ve seen, especially at that age.”
Robertson, who was an early cut at his first NHL training camp in September, has seen time on the power play and hasn’t looked out of place in battle drills against hardened veterans.
“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “So much has been thrown at me. A lot of curveballs, a lot of stuff I didn’t really expect. But I’m trying to adapt to all that and learn as much as possible and be like a sponge and a student while I’m here, and just try to be as competitive as possible.
“It’s a lot faster pace. You can have a lot of skill, but you have to think and you have to work within the system and find ways to take advantage of not only your skill, but your mind.”
He’s already impressed teammates with a release that helped him dominate the junior ranks.
Leafs winger William Nylander, who scored 31 times in the regular season, watched with interest after one on-ice session earlier this week as Robertson pinged puck after puck in off the crossbar.
“He’s flying around,” Nylander said. “He’s got a heavy shot.”
“He’s been a little water bug,” Toronto defenceman Cody Ceci added. “He’s really opening some eyes.”
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And while his game is finding the back of the net, Robertson will need to show effectiveness in other areas to be called on by the Leafs for the NHL’s 24-team resumption of play.
“He knew it was going to be a challenge coming in,” Keefe said. “He needs to earn it. He needs to really show it [and] make it obvious that he’s ready
“There’s gonna be physical mismatches. But it’s a matter of how you can compensate for that by using your intelligence and your work ethic.”
‘There’s no timeline for him’
Robertson, who was handed Alexander Mogilny’s old No. 89 for camp, reflected on how much life has changed in the last four months.
“I’ve been given this opportunity not only to try to make the team, but also just to learn,” he said. “It was unfortunate that our [OHL] season ended, but I wouldn’t be in this position.
“You’ve got to put that stuff aside and just go with it.”
And while Robertson is making his case to be part of a summer like no other, the organization also has the long-term in mind.
“There’s no timeline for him,” Keefe said. “We’re fortunate to have this event because we think we’re shortening the runway. If it clicks and he adjusts and it starts to happen for him to the point where he’s an option for us then that’s wonderful.
“But what we really like about him is we’ve got a player that’s going to be great for a very long time as a Leaf.”
Possibly sooner than anyone expected.