Pontus Holmberg made his NHL debut on Nov. 2 when his team beat the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2. He played just 10 minutes of ice time and registered two shots on the net. On Nov. 8, he returned to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies. However, he didn’t stay in the minors long. Within a week, he was back with the big club. He hasn’t been back to the AHL since.
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As the Toronto Star’s Chris Johnston has noted, Holmberg has dressed for 15 straight games and has delivered “reliable minutes and a dash of offence in the fourth-line centre role while earning the highest of praise from his head coach.” (from ‘Maple Leafs’ Pontus Holmberg is a shining example of successful prospect development,’ Toronto Star, 17/12/2022)
Holmberg Just Doesn’t Make Mistakes
Holmberg was in the lineup against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 15 and he’s been a part of every game since then. In 16 games on the season, Holmberg has scored two goals and added five assists (for seven points). He’s also only been penalized once and is a plus-3 on the season.
As his head coach Sheldon Keefe said about Holmberg, “I can’t find this guy making a mistake.” After 16 NHL games, Holmberg is making a positive impression. Coach Keefe added, “He is incredibly smart.”
His teammate Mitch Marner added, “He’s getting skin on people. Seems annoying out there, to be honest.”
Although when he was drafted, he was far from a sure thing; over the past few seasons, Holmberg’s built an impressive resume. Specifically, he was the MVP of the 2021 Swedish Hockey League (SHL) playoffs. He’s currently adding to that resume by showing what he can do on NHL ice.
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Holmberg has solid defensive instincts, and these make him a reliable player in whatever role he’s been given for the team. He’s averaging only 9:56 time on ice, but those are minutes that the coaching staff trusts will be played reliably. He’s been a standout in that respect.
Pontus Holmberg’s History with the Maple Leafs
Right now, Holmberg answers a number of questions for the Maple Leafs. Specifically, given the emergence of defensemen Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, this is a season where the Maple Leafs’ organizational depth has been on display. Holmberg’s become a poster child for how a system can work.
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The Maple Leafs drafted Holmberg low in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft (in the sixth round, 156th overall). However, he didn’t sign an entry-level contract (ELC) in 2018. Instead, it wasn’t until June 2021 that the young Swedish center finally signed a two-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $827,500.
After his signing, the now 23-year-old went home to Sweden on a loan to play in the SHL. There he had the best offensive season of his career by scoring 11 goals and adding 30 assists (for 41 points) in 46 regular season games with Växjö Lakers HC. What made that season in Sweden even more remarkable was that Holmberg was playing against older and more experienced players.
Why Holmberg Is an Exciting Player for the Maple Leafs
From a lower-round draft pick, Holmberg has been a revelation. When he landed with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies after his SHL season ended, he didn’t miss a stride in translating his game to the smaller North American ice surface.
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Additionally, Holmberg seems able to play anywhere in the Maple Leafs’ lineup. Unlike prospect Nick Robertson, who seems to need top-six minutes to best suit his game, Holmberg’s game has translated seamlessly to a bottom-six role.
That said, there’s every reason to suspect that Holmberg won’t feel out of place in the team’s top six either. He’s just a rookie, and there’s a lot to learn. He obviously hasn’t peaked yet. But, while he’s developing, he causes no issues for the team, no angst with the coaching staff at all.
Why Holmberg Is Crucial for the Maple Leafs
There are several reasons why having Holmberg in the lineup benefits the Maple Leafs. First, he’s cheap. His salary cap hit is only $827,500. While that’s above the NHL league minimum, it still allows the Maple Leafs to make salary-cap moves before the end of the regular season because they benefit from his inexpensive contract.
Second, Holmberg is now 23 years old. He’s hitting his prime physical abilities. Third, Holmberg seems able to make his linemates better. He’s not only responsible, but he works well with his others.
Fourth, Holmberg has a solid hockey IQ. He’s skilled at reading the opposition and he sees the entire ice. He’s a quality playmaker, as shown by the 30 SHL assists he registered last season.
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Fifth, Holmberg plays well under pressure. Although it isn’t the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he was named his team’s playoff MVP as a contributor to his SHL 2020-21 championship team. That’s a sign of his maturity and playoff experience.
So Far, So Good with Holmberg
After last season, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas engaged in exit meetings with some of the organization’s top AHL players. At that time, he outlined that there would be jobs for the grabbing with the big club this season.
As Dubas noted, “We do need those players (the organization’s prospects) to begin converting from being good prospects and good Marlies to good players for the Leafs.”
Holmberg’s been given that chance and, so far, he’s shown himself to be a quality organizational option. In doing that, he’s an example of the depth of the Maple Leafs’ organization and the quality of its drafting. However, he’s also helped his team practically. He’s freed the organization from bringing in another contract (with its possible higher salary-cap impact).
From my perspective, I love seeing the organization’s prospects get a chance to show what they can do in the NHL. Holmberg is only one example of a prospect who can jump into the mix and have a positive impact on the team’s bottom six.
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Holmberg has played responsibly and, as coach Keefe notes, he just doesn’t make mistakes. Not making mistakes is going to become a huge positive as the team moves forward in its Stanley Cup journey.
Who Else Is in the Maple Leafs’ Organization We Haven’t Yet Seen?
This might not be Holmberg’s season to shine as brightly as he might one day. But given his start so far, there’s every reason to believe the day is coming when he becomes an offensive leader on a very good Maple Leafs’ team.
My biggest personal question is what other youngsters in the organization will jump into the mix to join Holmberg in becoming Maple Leafs’ team leaders? Who else might be in the organization that we haven’t yet seen emerge?