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What's It Like to Compete For an NHL Roster Spot?

The stress of the NHL roster bubble is intense this time of year. How do two players at different ends of their careers handle the stress of trying to crack the lineup?
Nick Robertson

Training camp is a stretch on the hockey calendar that means drastically different things to different groups of people. 

For the superstars, camp is a glorified walkthrough; for veterans, the first true test of their body's durability; for roster hopefuls, undoubtedly the most stressful time of year. 

Everyone handles pressure differently in life. Some shrink in its presence while others use it as fuel in their pursuit. That doesn't change in the NHL, either. Those on the roster bubble heading into training camp experience a kind mental grind that their more securely employed counterparts simply don't. Weathering that pressure becomes a matter of survival as the days tick by, knowing full well that your future in a particular organization, or, even, the NHL itself could hinge entirely on what you contribute over the next two weeks.

There are only so many jobs to be had, after all. Not everyone will make the cut. 

No pressure. 

"This whole game is mental," explained Nick Robertson, the Leafs' highest-ranking forward prospect who currently finds himself in a tooth-and-nail battle for the club's' vacant second-line wing spot. 

"It's definitely hard to not see that. But for me, I just have to do what I have to do. I've got to just play and see how it all plays out. And what's going to give me the upper hand is just confidence. It's a lot easier when you know in yourself it's all going to work out. But it's just a mental grind more than physical."

Confidence is the operative word for all the roster hopefuls at Leafs camp this year, one that bleeds into each of their quotes almost subconsciously. It makes sense, too. Amidst the uncertainty, confidence is the one thing these players can contro. Many holding on to their own self belief for dear life. 

For Robertson, his grip might be tighter than anyone else's at the moment. The 21-year-old is a rare breed of roster hopeful: a blue chip prospect with skill to burn who only recently reached the United States' legal drinking age, and yet seems to have his long-term future within the Leafs' organization hinging largely on his ability to crack the roster ahead of opening night. 

It just goes to show how quickly things can change in the NHL life cycle. While Robertson should seemingly be afforded some slack at this stage of his development given his age and pedigree, the pressure is nevertheless officially on -- and heavier than ever.  

That type of mental whiplash is enough to make any player crumble, let alone one with merely a handful of NHL games under his belt. Training camp's physical challenges can be conquered with tangible work. The mental pressure it causes can't. And Robertson is the first to admit it. 

"100 percent, it's the hardest part," said Robertson of the mental toll. 

"If someone told me I was coming in and I had a full-time spot and I could go get a nicer place in Toronto, I think I'd play a little better."

While Robertson undoubtedly faces massive pressure to earn a big-league job in Toronto this season, his future in the NHL at large is more or less safe. He's young, after all. And in the modern game, age buys you opportunity. Even in the worst case scenario of Robertson failing to stick as a Leaf, he can at least take solace in knowing that teams across the league would line up to give the highly-touted winger a fresh start. 

Those on the other end of the spectrum don't have that luxury. Leafs camp in particular is filled with the other type of roster hopeful this year -- veterans attending on one-year deals or tryout offers, hoping to scratch and claw against the odds for an NHL job that could very well be their last. 

Jordie Benn is one of those veterans. Having turned 35 this summer, the defender is in a race against time at this stage of his career, having bounced around between three teams over the past two seasons in an attempt to keep his foot in the NHL's door. 

A good impression can extend his career. A bad one can end it. It's that simple. So, how does Benn handle this pressure?  

He doesn't. Handling the mental grind would require acknowledging that it exists. 

"It's not really that hard at all," stated Benn on the morning of his second preseason game as a Maple Leaf, locked in a battle for a final spot on the blueline that, depending on Toronto's cap situation, may not actually exist. 

"You just don't think about it. You worry about yourself as much as possible. You come in, you do your job, you work hard, and wherever the chips lie, they lie." 

Robertson, on the other hand, admits that putting those blinders on has been a difficult thing in the past. It's easy to walk into the room each day and live or die by the line combinations posted on the board. But the (admittedly little) experience Robertson has with how training camp has helped him work to quash that habit before it impacts his play. 

"It's different from a year or two ago in that I've talked with Kyle and I know that lines will be changed here and there every day," explained Robertson. 

"So, I've just got the mindset of coming into camp and playing like a full-time player, regardless of who I'm playing with."

These are two players at opposite moments in their hockey lives; one trying desperately to begin his NHL story, with the other hoping to extend it. Their approaches are rooted in the same confidence that every roster hopeful uses to survive the training camp rigours. And yet how they actually manage the immense pressure could not be more different. 

"What I remember was just how much every game meant," explained Mark Giordano, veteran of 1,024 NHL games and who is all too familiar with the anxiety around roster spots. Giordano arrived in Calgary as an undrafted free agent, fighting for each and every minute of action he was given. If anyone knows the mental toll the roster bubble takes on a player, it's him. 

"It meant a lot, you know?" continued Giordano, now a former Norris winner. 

"You're in preseason, you're on the bubble, and you want to play your best game each night. So, there's definitely a lot of guys in that situation here and I'm sure the nerves are there. I mean, I got cut a few times. But by the second or third or fourth camp, you learn that you have to play to your strengths and play with confidence."

There's that word again. Confidence comes in all shapes and sizes, showing itself in varying ways across the roster bubble spectrum. But no matter what end you find yourself at, the pressure exists all the same. 

What changes is how you handle it. 

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