Nick Robertson plays hero in overdue season debut for Maple Leafs

TORONTO – What if one week ago, you were to sit Nick Robertson down on the Toronto Marlies bus and tell him he’d be playing overtime hero for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

That he’d double his entire NHL goal output in a dramatic span of 63 minutes and 46 seconds?

That he’d call game and muzzle the critics and bring the home barn to its feet, against his older brother Jason’s undefeated Dallas Stars no less?

“I’d tell you, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” said an emotional Nick Robertson after a first-star turn in his season debut, a 3-2 Leafs OT thriller on Thursday.

“You never know what can happen in this industry.”

Industry? Nick, you’re an electric 21-year-old prospect with a runway to who knows and a shot so hard, teammate Victor Mete’s foot is still aching 10 days after blocking one in practice.

Why did you not call hockey a game?

“It’s just this whole business is all business. I mean, it’s just the way it is. You know, with cap space, with people’s positions, everyone’s different,” Robertson explains.

“I got the callup, and I’m trying to stick here and be a full-time player.”

Heretofore, the industry has spat in Robertson’s face. But first, it teased him.

As an 18-year-old hot off a 55-goal romp through juniors, he was pulled into the 2020 playoff bubble, where he even potted a post-season goal before taking a backseat to the more trusted veterans.

Despite skipping a chance to win a gold medal alongside Team USA at the 2021 world juniors because he put his NHL dream first, Robertson’s following two campaigns were complicated by pandemic lockdowns and riddled with a series of injuries and rehabilitations.

The feisty, undersized left winger was largely relegated to the farm. He found the net but once over 16 big-league games scattered over two years. His confidence was rattled. His game was criticized for being too intense. Trade rumours sputtered here and there. And his taller, older brother (and best friend) was lighting it up in precisely the way he could only wish for.

Then Robertson arrived at his fourth Leafs training camp and swept the pre-season by storm.

Anyone with eyes would tell you he had made the team with flying colours. Someone with a calculator had other ideas.

Robertson didn’t complain. He just scored more points for the Marlies and waited for the injuries to pile.

“The situation was definitely tough to grasp … but now, to get a night like this just kind of makes up for it,” Robertson says.

“I don’t want to participate. I want to be a factor in our team winning the game and be an impactful player.”

Because Robertson didn’t require waivers to get cut (fellow left wing Denis Malgin did), and because Toronto couldn’t afford so much as his entry-level cap hit ($796,667) to carry him as a scratch, he started at the bottom.

Now, he’s here.

“Looks like he belongs,” Alexander Kerfoot says.

Ya think?

In addition to tilting the ice on Toronto’s most effective line (alongside William Nylander and John Tavares), Robertson threw three hits, stole two pucks, and generated more chances than the two beauties he cashed in on.

Robertson took hits to make plays and popped back up like Whack-A-Mole.

When Robertson was on the ice, the Leafs outshot Dallas 12-3.

His latest demotion has simply added to the fire.

“That only fueled him. With the type of player he is, he’s going to show them,” brother Jason says.

“It’s his third year pro. He has some experience. And over the summer he keeps pushing, pushing to the next step. I think it’s his year.”

Coach Sheldon Keefe says he fought an urge to toss the youngster out earlier in the fourth period, and when Jamie Benn nearly toe-dragged him a frightening thought went through Robertson’s head: “Oh, boy, this is gonna be embarrassing.”

But he got a stick on the thing, charged up-ice, played some give-and-go with Auston Matthews, and one-timed his way to hockey hugs.

“Unbelievable. His first game this season and two perfect goals,” marveled undefeated goalie Ilya Samsonov. “He’s a good shooter. Sometimes hurts, you know?”

Robertson admitted to some nerves before his splashy debut.

Prior to puck drop, he grabbed a bottle and squirted cold water down the back of his neck, as is his wake-up routine. But unlike in pre-season, he didn’t blindly douse assistant coach Spencer Carbery’s suit this time — a faux pas Robertson has committed multiple times, much to Carbery’s chagrin.

Keefe noticed the improvement.

“You know, for all the development I’ve seen (from you), this is the best one,” the coach teased the kid.

Robertson laughed before he focused.

And then he deposited a delivery that felt way overdue yet paradoxically right on time.

“Just an all-around great night for 89,” Mitch Marner says.

“I was just excited. I mean, you kind of dream of this stuff, to score an overtime winner in the NHL,” Robertson says.

“But now, for me, it’s just to keep going. Keep fighting and earning every day.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Matthews has already drawn six penalties through five games, tying Gabriel Vilardi and Matthew Tkachuk for the NHL lead.

This marks a wild turnaround from 2022-23, when Matthews drew just 14 penalties all season (tied for 213th leaguewide).

“He hasn’t found the rhythm offensively here yet, but he’s battling and doing little things for us,” Keefe says.

“Earning power plays is one of them. He’s in the thick of it, and that’s why he’s getting those calls.”

• Watching Marner and Matthews get pushed around physically by a bruising Stars group, one couldn’t help but wonder which Leaf might need to stand up for them at some point.

Mark Giordano, too, got shoved into the end-boards late, and the Leafs didn’t exactly get in Luke Glendening’s face after the fact.

• Why did Keefe feel it necessary to soften Monday’s post-game criticism of his “elite players” at the following practice?

“It is probably more of a reflection of coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs and dealing with you guys [reporters] than anything — just to make sure that the way I am communicating is more clear,” Keefe clarified of his clarification.

“The reaction to the comments was not what I was trying to communicate. It is more so about managing the media than the players.”

• How about some props for Dallas backup and Brampton, Ont., native Scott Wedgewood, who made 40 saves and salvaged a point for the Stars in his season debut after warming the bench for a week?

• Rasmus Sandin looks waaaay more comfortable on his natural left side.

He quietly logged 20:35, threw a game-high seven hits, blocked a couple shots, took a couple shots, and pitched in an assist, seeing some action on PP2.

“We need to get more out of our younger guys,” Keefe noted of his blue line.

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