Nobody called Chris McNamara with a hot tip, telling him that he absolutely had to get out to watch the little American kid play. There was nothing circled on the calendar, no reason to get excited about seeing one of the weaker minor midget teams in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
As director of scouting for the Peterborough Petes, McNamara tries to get out to see every team, and it just happened to be the day he blocked off to watch the Toronto Red Wings. The little American might only have been 5-foot-7 — a tiny broomstick on skates — but he would become impossible to ignore.
Nick Robertson was winning battles against much bigger players, stripping the puck from them on the back-check and firing shots with unusual velocity. He was born in Los Angeles, trained in Detroit and was quickly entrenched atop the OHL draft board in Peterborough.
“You go watch other good players, and they show you flashes of greatness and flashes of the high-end skill,” McNamara said. “But this kid was doing it every shift.”
Robertson is still waiting for that decisive growth spurt, but three years after the Petes took him in the first round, that high-end skill has placed him on the precipice of franchise history. The 18-year-old is on the verge of becoming the first Peterborough player to reach 50 goals in a season in 27 years.
According to the Peterborough Examiner, only 13 players have scored that many goals in a season for the Petes, who are the oldest continuously operating franchise in the league. Robertson has scored 47 goals this season, with 10 games still to play.
“It’s exciting, definitely a big accomplishment,” Robertson said. “Hopefully I can get it pretty soon.”
That success also reflects on the Maple Leafs, who picked Robertson with their first available selection in the NHL draft last spring. Toronto got Robertson, the OHL’s potential goal-scoring leader, in the second round (53rd overall). He signed his entry-level contract in September.
“He should have been a first-round draft pick,” said Craig Button, the former Calgary Flames general manager now working as an analyst with TSN.
Robertson has missed time due both to injury and for the world junior championship. His 47 goals have arrived through only 42 games. He is tied with Ottawa’s Jack Quinn for the league’s goal-scoring lead, and Quinn has appeared in 14 more games.
“The largest number of mistakes in the NHL draft are on size: Overestimating the bigger player, and underestimating the smaller player,” Button said. “When you’re drafting players at 17 or 18 years of age, they have so much growth ahead of them in terms of physical maturity.”
Button added a point for emphasis: “I don’t scout with a tape measure.”
Robertson is still only listed as 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds. That would make him three inches shorter and 11 pounds lighter than Mitch Marner.
Button compared him to Jake Guentzel, another diminutive American forward, who is playing with the Penguins. He said Robertson is elusive, able to use his leverage to slip under checks from some of his larger opponents.
“He’s a Formula One driver,” Button said. “He can corner. He can speed up on the straightaway. He understands when to down-shift. If you’re a defenceman, you don’t know — you don’t know if he’s going to gear up and go by you, or if he’s going to quickly turn and gain some space for himself.”
Robertson had earned at least a point in 19 straight games heading into a game at home against the Oshawa Generals on Thursday night. The streak encompassed every game the Petes had played since the start of the New Year. He had five goals in three games heading into play against Oshawa.
“He’s an elite goal scorer,” said Petes coach Rob Wilson. “He can score them in all ways: He can score them from distance, he can score them in at the crease, he can score them from a one-timer, he can score them on a deke.”
The Petes deployed him whenever possible against the Generals, their ancient rival.
Robertson was on the point for the team’s first power-play unit. He was also on the first penalty-killing unit. He lined up on the wing at five-on-five, but seemed to be everywhere around the puck, slipping to the open spaces around the offensive zone.
Robertson was held without a point Thursday, snapping his streak.
“It’s an elite group of people who have scored 50 goals in the OHL,” said Petes general manager Mike Oke. “It’s not something that happens on a regular basis.”
Jason Dawe (58) and Mike Harding (54) were the last Peterborough players to reach the mark, hitting it during the 1992-93 season. The Petes own one of the most storied roll calls in Canadian junior hockey, from Wayne Gretzky to Steve Yzerman to Chris Pronger.
“It’s a real terrific accomplishment, and something that Nick should be proud of,” Oke said. “It’s a milestone that will be able to be recognized, and a feather in the cap of the entire Petes organization.”
Robertson’s older brother Jason, a Dallas Stars prospect, led the OHL in scoring last season with Niagara. Over the summer, they rented a condominium together in Aurora, north of Toronto, to be close to fitness guru Gary Roberts. They worked out with him during the week and, on some weekends, Nick Robertson would find another arena to do some more work.
He would shoot 1,000 pucks.
“I don’t think there were too many other 18-year-olds up at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning to shoot 1,000 pucks,” McNamara said with a chuckle. “That takes a little bit of determination and will, you know what I mean?”
Robertson does not hesitate when asked about his goal for next fall: He plans to make the Leafs out of training camp.
“He can’t make himself 6-foot-2,” McNamara said. “But he’s going to make sure he’s getting stronger physically.”