Discussions about the strength of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program this season have been inescapable. Boasting one of the best forward groups the team has ever had, a star defenseman in Cam York and a standout goaltender in Spencer Knight, the American development program was at its best and could see nine players drafted in the first round of the upcoming draft. The hype is real.
But in a year where the class of American-born talent is considered to be among the best in draft history, not enough attention has been given to the prospects outside of the program.
Enter Nicholas Robertson.
The younger brother of Dallas Stars prospect Jason Robertson, Nicholas had interest in the U.S. NTDP, and the program felt mutual about it. In fact, he once believed it was the route he wanted to take. But after a move to the Greater Toronto Area, it became clear Nicholas wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and pursue an opportunity in the OHL. So, that’s exactly what he did.
Born on Sept. 11, 2001 – mere days before the Sept. 15 draft cutoff – Robertson was a standout on a Toronto Red Wings team that had modest success, scoring a team-high 18 goals and 36 points. He then showed great promise in limited action with the OJHL’s North York Rangers before going 16th-overall to the Peterborough Petes in the 2017 OHL draft. That made him the highest-drafted American after Jack Hughes. One scout who followed Robertson’s development since his minor hockey days in Michigan said he was a perfect candidate for the U.S. NTDP, but also thought the OHL was a great fit for his development as it would give him the opportunity to play top-six minutes almost immediately, something that can be vital for young prospects.
For Robertson, the OHL route simply made sense, and he’s proven his worth in the circuit. After a 15-goal, 33-point rookie campaign in 2017-18, Robertson led the Petes with 27 goals and 55 points this past season, the 12th-best point total among under-18 players in the OHL. The only American-born CHL player who scored more points this season – and in the campaign leading up to their first year of NHL draft eligibility – was Hamilton Bulldogs forward Arthur Kaliyev. “I had a little more information than other guys who don’t have brothers in the OHL,” Robertson said. “Playing against some first-round picks, second-round picks, it’s highly competitive.”
Robertson’s prolific campaign was proof positive that American talent runs deep in the upcoming draft, something scouts and pundits have agreed upon. In The Hockey News’ Draft Preview issue, 23 of the top 62 players are American. By comparison, just 17 Canadians made the list. Only 10 Americans went in the first 62 picks last year, with the 102nd pick signalling the 23rd American chosen. The 17th-ranked North American skater by NHL’s Central Scouting Service, Robertson projects to be one of the first non-U.S. NTDP Americans chosen this summer, with forwards Kaliyev, Bobby Brink and Shane Pinto and defenseman Ryan Johnson also likely to be taken early.
In Robertson’s eyes, what separates him from others is his pure skill. He said he uses his puck creativity to make up for his lack of size and that he’s effective with and without the puck due to his tireless work ethic. One scout mentioned Robertson’s skating needs a bit of work and game-to-game consistency can be an issue, but the tools are there for him to become a very solid secondary scorer in the vein of Jaden Schwartz or Evgenii Dadonov after ironing out a few deficiencies.
Robertson said he takes the rankings, and what has been said about him in various publications, with a grain of salt. He recalls seeing someone compare him to Nick Ritchie, the Anaheim Ducks’ 6-foot-2, 234-pound power forward. Robertson is 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds.
“It’s pretty funny,” Robertson said. “I don’t really look at the rankings. The last thing I want to worry about is what someone who’s not an NHL scout thinks about me. You never know if they’re right or wrong, but you hope they’re right when they’re saying good things. But when the North American skater rankings come out, and you’re at the combine and you see what shirt number you’re wearing, it’s hard not to be caught up in it.”
It’s nothing his brother hasn’t done before. What’s the best advice Jason had to offer?
“He told me to just be calm, enjoy it,” Robertson said. “You’re not going experience this again in your life. Live in the moment.”
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