Toronto Maple Leafs rookie winger and fan favourite, Nick Robertson, is expected to be off the ice for the next four weeks with a knee injury after crashing into the boards during Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators, the team announced Monday.
Robertson was the 53rd pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and he quickly gained traction and appreciation from Leafs fans last August, when he played in four out of five playoff games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He scored his first career NHL Playoff goal at only 18- years-old.
Now 19 years of age with one NHL playoff series under his belt, Robertson was recalled from the taxi squad on Saturday night to make his regular-season debut, playing on the fourth line in place of Alexander Barabanov.
He played a total of 2:20 on the ice and showed promising puck handling and speed before colliding into the boards following a hit from Senators’ Drake Batherson.
The rookie sat on the sidelines for the remainder of the game, and after MRI results came back, the Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters it was “good news” that Robertson would be out for four weeks.
So what happens when he’s cleared to play again?
At the moment, possibilities are up in the air, especially when the Leafs’ tight salary cap is taken into consideration.
The team could put Robertson on long-term injury reserve, which would allow them to exceed their salary cap of $81.5 million, but would also force them to fulfill the mandated minimum of 10 games and 24 days in the NHL season without the rookie, which would be less than ideal if he recovers quicker than anticipated. And it’s safe to say that Robertson wants to play for the Leafs as much as he can.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, Robertson had passed up the opportunity to play for Team USA in the 2021 World Juniors Championship (WJC) in his last year of eligibility. The U.S. went on to win gold in the final just eight days before the regular NHL season started.
“I’m really glad to see [Team USA] win and I know a bunch of the guys there. It was a situation to be stuck in and we thought the safest [option] was to stay here,” Robertson told reporters, following the Leafs’ locally broadcasted Blue and White pre-season scrimmage.
Instead of playing in the WJC, the 19-year-old stayed in Toronto and prepared for the upcoming season.
“It is in the best interest of both Nick and the Maple Leafs that he remain in Toronto so that we ensure he can participate in our training camp, while abiding by all health and safety standards from the City of Toronto and Province of Ontario," Kyle Dubas, the Maple Leafs’ general manager, said.
Yet, on January 13 at puck drop, Robertson could be found cheering on the sidelines with the rest of the team’s taxi squad, which is a sort of limbo between the AHL and NHL this season.
Before the minor league seasons start up, expected to be on Feb. 5, 2021, up to six players who don’t make the cut for the main team roster can be placed on the taxi squad. From there, they travel and train with the rest of the team but don’t actually play unless they are recalled. If/when the AHL and CHL seasons begin this year, teams would be required to either keep taxi squad players and move them onto the main roster, place them on waivers, or send them away to play for the junior/minor leagues. Since Robertson is 19, if the OHL resumes play, he can't play in the AHL.
While waiver-exempt Robertson was assigned onto the taxi squad before being recalled to play and getting injured, he was in danger of being transferred down to the junior/minor leagues once their seasons started. Upon his return, if the Leafs decide to keep him, he could take his place on the fourth line and show everyone why he was worth the wait. Or, he could find himself playing on an OHL or AHL team (if there's no OHL season).
Either way, Robertson is young, dedicated to the game, and buzzing every time he gets on the ice. He’s undoubtedly talented and has a long career ahead of him, whether it takes off with the Leafs or not, and they’d be wise to give him the chance to prove it.