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A path to make Nick Robertson a Marlie may have opened

In a fun afternoon twist, a snippet from Las Vegas may give us some insight into an avenue of flexibility for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top prospect, forward Nick Robertson. According to American Hockey League insider Patrick Williams, Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon sees the continued postponement of the OHL’s season as route for some of his prospects to head into the AHL, which would have implications across the league:

The rule that is impacted by this decision, which still hasn’t been confirmed, relates to a transfer agreement between the CHL, NHL, and AHL. The agreement requires prospects drafted out of the CHL’s three leagues (WHL, OHL, and QMJHL), to be assigned back to major junior should they not make their NHL teams, so long as they’re in their Age 18 or 19 season, or haven’t already accrued four completed seasons of 25+ games played (typically reserved for early bloomers or exceptional status players).

Robertson falls under this rule, as the youngest player selected in the entire 2019 Entry Draft. This limits Toronto’s options to the Maple Leafs or the Peterborough Petes, where the 19 year old dazzled with 55 goals and 86 points in just 46 games last year. While some wonder if the 5’9, 164 pound finisher/grinder is physically ready for the rigors of a full NHL season, most agree that there is more to learn from regular, if limited NHL limits than another season of clowning teenagers.

Naturally, COVID-19 throws a wrench into a lot of people’s plans. This morning, the OHL announced that they’ll be delaying the start of their season indefinitely, after previously planning for a mid-January start to training camp and a February 4th regular season start, a little more than three weeks after the NHL season was set to begin. Given that the scheduled end to the OHL’s regular season was on March 22nd last year (the league missed out on completion by nine days), it is difficult to believe that, even with the most wishful of thinking, there will be anything resembling a regular season this year. This is especially true as case, hospitalization, and death numbers only get worse and general public vaccine roll-out looks to be months away, which would limit lower-budget leagues’ flexibility to spend on precautionary measures.

Across the umbrella, the QMJHL attempted to play a season with an October 2nd start, but hit pause on November 29th. As of right now, their earliest  date of resumption appears to be January 22nd. The WHL has yet to start, and postponed their January 8th beginning indefinitely on December 15th.

While the possibility of some form of major junior hockey remains, it seems unlikely to be a situation where the leagues will have a ground to stand on in terms of holding back players with other options. Both the AHL and ECHL are expected to run in some form, giving some teams one or two teams to assign players to. In the case of the Maple Leafs organization, the Newfoundland Growlers will not play in the ECHL this year as part of a division-wide decision, but one can expect that if the AHL operates, the Toronto Marlies will play.

This would give Toronto an option that, if the transfer agreement didn’t exist, would probably be their preferred one – Robertson getting first or second line minutes with special teams time on their AHL club. Theoretically, this could also give an opportunity to QMJHL prospects Mikhail Abramov and William Velleneuve, but the extent of which they would be involved, if at all, is still a question mark.

As far as when we’ll know for sure whether this is a go or not, I would expect to get some clarity in that regard in the next week or two. As Williams mentions in his thread, the AHL has a Board of Governors meeting (presumably by Zoom this year) coming up on December 30th, and I imagine this is a topic that teams will want to have clarity on beforehand. Given that there are Amateur Tryout rules that already exist for CHL players to play in the AHL at the conclusion of their seasons, one would expect this to be a matter of approval rather than re-negotiation.

If that were the case, it’s definitely something the Leafs will be happy about – a fantastic development route for their top prospect should he not appear ready for a Day-1 impact in training camp.

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