Heading into preseason a few months ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a ton of competition for spots in the forward group, namely in the bottom six. Between off-season signings including Zach Aston-Reese, Denis Malgin, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (who has since been claimed off waivers by the Washington Capitals), along with prospects such as Nick Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, Alex Steeves, and Joey Anderson, the battle for a spot in the bottom six was a dogfight, to say the least.
Once preseason wrapped up, the final spot came down to Malgin, with Robertson finishing as the runner-up solely because he was eligible to go to the American Hockey League (AHL). Here we are seven weeks into the season, and the player who’s worked himself into a regular role in the lineup is somebody who didn’t even make the roster out of the camp. Of course, I’m talking about the aforementioned Holmberg.
While neither Robertson nor Malgin have been regular players this season, Holmberg was recalled to the NHL to get a look in the bottom six, and he’s subsequently been in the lineup every night since Nov. 15 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What makes it even more impressive is that he’s done this while remaining relatively quiet on the scoresheet, with only three points in 10 games. He’s done all the little things right, he’s earned the trust of his head coach, and as of right now, it looks as though he won’t be returning to the AHL anytime soon.
Maple Leafs Saw Something in Holmberg From the Start
Ever since general manager Kyle Dubas joined the front office, he’s always been prone to trading down in the draft to gain more capital. So, there was an element of surprise when he traded into the sixth round at the 2018 Draft to select Holmberg. At the time, he was listed at 5-foot-11 and 179 pounds, and the Maple Leafs certainly had no shortage of smallish forwards in their system at the time. If nothing else, the Vasteras native was a long-term prospect for the team to develop.
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Playing for the Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Holmberg continued to develop and improve each season. His first true breakthrough was in 2020-21, where at the age of 21, finished his season with 23 points in 45 games, and then exploded in the playoffs tallying 14 points in 14 games en route to an SHL championship along with playoff MVP honours for his team. His play earned him an entry-level contract in June 2021, something I vouched for after his playoff performance, and he only got better from there, upping his regular season production to 41 points in 46 games in 2021-22.
In his first preseason with the team, Holmberg stood out and probably played well enough to make the team, but like Robertson, was sent to the AHL simply because of his cap flexibility. He was called up to make his NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 2 and didn’t see the lineup again until the aforementioned Nov. 15 game. Since then, he hasn’t missed a single game and seems to have found himself a new home as the team’s third-line centre. And as weird as it might sound to say, I think the Maple Leafs have reached a point where they’d actually be hurting the team if they sent him back to the Toronto Marlies.
Holmberg Has Earned the Trust of Keefe, Coaching Staff
It’s not often you’ll hear a coach flounder over a prospect the way head coach Sheldon Keefe has over the past few weeks, let alone one who was drafted in the late rounds of a draft four years ago. So, when your head coach quite literally tells the media that he can’t find any mistakes to go over with you after watching your game tape, you have to be doing something right. And so far, although he hasn’t shown up all that much on the scoresheet, he’s been doing just about every single little thing right.
Holmberg’s IQ has been the root of his strong play. He’s always in the right place, rarely finds himself out of position, and after the Maple Leafs ran into some unexpected struggles involving their third-line centre role, he’s stepped in and done everything he can to ensure the Maple Leafs don’t run Alex Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall in that role again.
Especially with David Kampf finding a permanent home on the fourth line with Aston-Reese, Holmberg has slid into that role and stabilized it. On top of his strong defensive play, he’s displayed a sneaky good shot, and now listed at 6-foot-0 and 202 pounds, he’s also put on a ton of muscle and uses his body on the ice.
If nothing else, Holmberg has been doing everything asked of him and hasn’t really shown any signs of growing pains yet. He may not bring all that much offense this season, but he’s turned the third line from a black hole into one of the Maple Leafs’ better lines for driving possession, all while having somewhat of a rotating cast of linemates.
Holmberg Could Be the 3rd Line Centre For Rest of the Season
As I alluded to earlier, it looks like the Maple Leafs may have found a solution up the middle on their third line. After they started off by trying Engvall and occasionally Kerfoot in the centre position and it didn’t work, the need for a proper third-line middleman presented itself, and it looks like the Maple Leafs may have found their answer there internally. His IQ and defensive play have been enough to warrant a spot there for the foreseeable future, and any extra offense that comes with it is an added bonus.
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It’s important to temper expectations with a player like Holmberg, especially somebody who’s only played 10 NHL games in his career, but the fact that his IQ and defensive instincts are his strong suits early on is a super encouraging sign. I can’t see him simply forgetting how to play hockey, so as long as he keeps bringing those two aspects of his game, I think there’s a definite chance he’s their third-line centre for the rest of the season.
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Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.