Jason Robertson was late to training camp after navigating a tricky contract negotiation.
The winger didn't feel ready for the Dallas Stars' final exhibition game, preferring to use extra practice time to get sharp for the regular season.
Robertson has not just found his stride seven weeks into the schedule. He finds himself in elite company.
The 23-year-old sits atop the NHL goal-scoring race with 19, one ahead of Connor McDavid.
Robertson has also found the scoresheet in 16 straight games, hitting the back of the net 17 times and adding 12 assists over that span, to sit three points back of McDavid's league-leading 39.
The top of the 2022-23 stats page includes a lot of familiar names — McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Leon Draisaitl among them.
Robertson is showing he belongs. Just don't mention it to him.
"Doesn't mean much to me," the Arcadia, Calif., product said following a recent game.
"I'm just playing hockey."
Stars head coach Peter DeBoer joked after Monday's 4-1 victory over St. Louis — Robertson scored his eighth goal in six games — that the red-hot sniper's shot block at a key moment was what really stood out.
"I've seen the goal-scoring ability," DeBoer said with a smile. "The shot, it should impress me — it doesn't. But the blocked shot impressed the hell out of me.
"That's what I like."
All kidding aside, Robertson has done more than force his way into the race for both the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy as NHL's top goal-scorer and the Art Ross Trophy as its points leader.
He's also added his name to the Hart Trophy conversation as league MVP.
The 39th pick at the 2017 draft, who signed a four-year contract in October as a restricted free agent that carries what's now a bargain annual average value of US$7.75 million, is on pace to register 128 points in 2022-23, which trails only McDavid (146 points) and Kucherov (130 points), and is tied with Draisaitl.
Robertson has also scored 15 of his 19 goals at even strength — four better than Elias Pettersson for the league lead.
"Elite goal-scorer," Dallas netminder Scott Wedgewood said. "It's been fun to watch."
The No. 2 crease option behind Jake Oettinger with the Stars, Wedgewood gets a first-hand look at Robertson in both practice and during summer skates in Michigan.
The netminder said while his teammate's shot doesn't appear out of the ordinary, he uses what's available to his advantage.
"Some of it's just placement," Wedgewood said. "A lot of the time it's what's available, what's there, what you don't see … he's smart with it. He's deceptive. He can wait, change the angle.
"He's got the tools."
Robertson, meanwhile, is simply keeping his head down and going to work.
"Teammates out there are making plays," he said. "Just giving me the puck in the right areas, getting to the net.
"The puck just keeps going in."
The New York Rangers took a 2-0 lead in last season's Eastern Conference final.
Not much has gone right since.
The Broadway Blueshirts proceeded to lose four straight to the Tampa Bay Lightning to bow out of the playoffs in June and are still a pedestrian 11-9-4 this season despite beating Ottawa 3-1 on Wednesday.
"A little bit of frustration for everyone at this point," New York captain Jacob Trouba said this week. "Keep battling, keep grinding, keep working through this."
Sabres head coach Don Granato answered plenty of questions about his star defenceman's struggles at this time last season.
Rasmus Dahlin has taken a huge a step forward in 2022-23, sitting fourth in the NHL in blue-line scoring with eight goals and 26 points in 22 games.
"There's not much not right with Rasmus right now," Granato said recently of the No. 1 pick at the 2018 draft. "It's all starting to come together."
The 22-year-old Swede, who's been paired with Owen Power to help mentor the top pick in 2021, is also third in the league with an average of more than 26 minutes of ice time in his fifth season.
"All the hard work he's put in through his career, all the adversity and challenges that took him out of it psychologically for years … this league, you can get in your own head really, really quick," Granato continued. "He broke the threshold. He now knows he can be an elite player at any moment in any game.
"He has the hindsight and wisdom of lots of experience — both good and bad."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press