As recently as last season, Matthew Robertson had been projected to be in the running for the 3LD spot with the Rangers for this coming season. As a smooth skating, low event, defense first defenseman, Robertson’s style of play meshed well with what former head coach Gerard Gallant wanted. He also has a pretty solid first pass, which would have been a big boost to a third pair sorely lacking in puck movement.
Yet here we are, less than a month away from the start of the 2023-2024 season, and Matthew Robertson isn’t even in the discussion anymore. The Rangers signed Erik Gustafsson as a hybrid 3LD/insurance policy, and Zac Jones now requires waivers to be sent to the AHL. Both will break camp with the Rangers. Unless the Rangers carry 8 defensemen, and cap reasons tell us they won’t, then Robertson is headed back to Hartford for a third season.
As a general statement, once players start getting into their third and fourth years in the AHL, their chances of making it as NHL regulars diminish greatly. There are exceptions obviously, but it’s exceedingly rare for a player to develop in the AHL for that long and then become a regular player. In fact Robertson wasn’t even an AHL regular until last season. He was part of a rotation in his first year.
Aside: It is worth noting that Hartford, for the most part, has been a disaster for development in recent years. That’s not on Robertson, but it is an unfortunate reality.
Even Dan Girardi, who famously worked his way up from an AHL/ECHL contract to multiple years as the Rangers top pairing defenseman, only spent 1.5 seasons in the AHL before sticking in the NHL. Ryan Graves and PA Parenteau are the only two players that come to mind as successful NHLers after playing 3+ seasons with Hartford. Both did it with other organizations.
So with Robertson heading towards a third year in the AHL, we are left to wonder what the plan is. Robertson was signed almost immediately after the Rangers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2019, illustrating how highly regarded he was by the prior regime. His next two seasons were cut short due to Covid. His last two seasons in Hartford weren’t what you’d expect from a guy who is on the cusp of breaking through to the NHL.
There are some factors outside of Robertson’s control. He likely lost two years of development due to Covid. Hartford has been a train wreck for development, and the Rangers organization itself hasn’t exactly been great with developing prospects either. That said, Robertson simply hasn’t put it all together yet, for whatever reasons we want to point to.
As Robertson enters his final year of his ELC and his final year without requiring waivers, his future with the Rangers is unclear. Assuming no injuries and both Jones and Gustafsson break camp with the Rangers, then Robertson is competing with Ben Harpur, Connor Mackey, Mac Hollowell, and possibly Ty Emberson (who is also entering his third AHL season) as the 8D and first injury call up.
Robertson may be a victim of a waivers numbers game to start the season, and it’s to be expected. However if he isn’t able to beat out that quartet of defensemen for the first injury call up, then his time in New York is done. We’ve seen the Rangers swap prospects in this scenario, most recently Joey Keane for Julien Gauthier. That may be on the horizon if camp doesn’t go the way Robertson or the Rangers hope.