While it may not seem like a big deal as there are more pressing matters, the Toronto Maple Leafs should look to bolster their depth in the top-six this offseason. The second line looked to have gone cold at points during the second half of the 2021-22 season. While there are potential free agents they can look to try and bring in some help on the second line, the option of promoting from within remains.
General manager Kyle Dubas said in his end of season conference said that the Maple Leafs could look to promote players in their system and give their top prospects a chance to battle for roster spots. If the price is high for players in free agency, or even to re-sign players like Ilya Mikheyev– who could command $4-5 million– this could very well be option A.
Bringing in players on their entry-level contracts to provide a spark on a team with their top prospects in the pipeline could be what they need for the team and a boost of confidence for their top prospects.
This has been the obvious choice for some time and it remains that way.It’s been a difficult start to Nick Robertson’s pro career.
Selected 53rd overall in the 2019 draft, Robertson is an energetic and aggressive player on the forecheck with speed and a sniper’s release. Robertson is hoping to remain healthy and compete for a roster spot as he’s had a difficult path as a result of injuries. He sustained a knee injury minutes into his season debut in 2020-21 and to start the 2021-22 season with the Toronto Marlies, he sustained a fractured right fibula that forced him to miss close to 10 weeks.
The injury concerns have started to creep in with one of the Maple Leafs’ top prospects as he’s had two significant ailments before seeing regular NHL minutes. Despite the setbacks, Robertson has remained a critical piece for this team’s future. The production has been there with the Marlies in the American Hockey League as he’s just under a point per game at 0.90 with 44 points in 49 games. He’s going to be given every chance to try and earn that spot on the second line left side with John Tavares and William Nylander.
He’s already seen some time with them so the familiarity is already there. According to Money Puck with 32.2 minutes played (a small sample), Robertson, Tavares and Nylander had a Corsi For percentage of 57.3 and an expected goals percentage of 58.3%. Despite a low conversion rate, they generated quality chances. Robertson’s speed was also evident as it was a boost to that line to push the pace. It could be a big reason why he gets a good look in the top-six to start.
Robertson still has top-six potential written all over him and he should be given every chance to succeed. He’s shown to play at a high level in the AHL as well as the confidence needed to be in the NHL. He may need to dial it back, but he shows no quit to his game as he looks ready to take that next step forward for the 2022-23 season.
On a May episode of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast, Elliotte Friedman suggested that Tavares be made into a winger. While he’s been strong in the dot and he would still be able to take faceoffs, the speed appears too much for him to be in that role. (27:58 mark)
Whether the Maple Leafs go through with that decision or not, they do have a player who can play centre or be on the wing if they need in Pontus Holmberg. Drafted in the sixth round in 2018, Holmberg has shown to play well against men in the SHL. He was playoff MVP in 2020-21 with the Växjö Lakers HC with 14 points in 14 games and added 41 points in 46 games this season. He showed even more promise at the Olympics for Sweden and made a seamless transition to the Marlies with four points in six games.
While he may not seem like an obvious choice as he only has six games to his resume in North America, Holmberg is no stranger to playing against tougher competition and thriving as a result. He’s 23 years old and still growing as a prospect but has shown a strong commitment and work ethic to taking the next step. It’s a lot to ask of from a young player to come and be a top-six forward with minimal experience, but he’s impressed so far.
With Mikheyev’s previously reported asking price, it would be too much to keep him in the fold. Holmberg could be a player that can provide the same level of offense and intensity at a cheaper cap hit. While the production may not be there to start, possibly playing with two solid producers in Tavares and Nylander could help jump start his career, much like Mikheyev had a standout season playing in the middle-six.
Holmberg could be that player with the chance to get a look on the second line as he’s an effective playmaker with the smarts and awareness that this team is looking for. If the Maple Leafs do decide to try Tavares on the wing, Holmberg could be a centreman that can take over from time to time along with Nylander as all three have played centre before. While he may start the season in the AHL, Holmberg could be an option if he continues to impress.
This would fall under the be patient approach, wait and see what happens category. But the upside is high with Matthew Knies. After an impressive and dominating freshman season, Knies made the decision to go back to the University of Minnesota after there was talks of him going pro. Maple Leafs fans were giddy with excitement at the thought of him joining the team and providing a power forward presence on the roster.
Knies finished his freshman season as a point per game player (33 points in 33 games) and second overall in team scoring behind Ben Myers who had 41 points. Among players in the NCAA in their draft +1 season, Knies had the fourth best primary points per game of 0.75 and P/G, behind only Matty Beniers, Matthew Coronato and Kent Johnson in both categories. All three were taken in the first round of the 2021 draft and to have that kind of production with first round talent is extraordinary.
What instantly stood out for Knies was his ability to adjust and translate to the higher level of competition. He displayed everything you wanted in a player with top-six potential. He has great speed and mobility for his size, he showed great body positioning and physicality in battles and of course there’s the shot, offensive presence and awareness to open the game up when on the attack.
The Maple Leafs lacked intensity and killer instinct on that second line. Knies brings that every time he’s on the ice and he displays great positioning and smarts. He would provide a presence that would make the second line tougher to play against with his work ethic and ability to gain possession of the puck. He’s just what they need to make them more competitive. The transition from college to the NHL is much more difficult, but Knies has shown to excel no matter what level he’s at. He earned a spot and played well at the Olympics for Team USA, continuing the belief that he’s able to compete hard and keep up against older players.
While Knies may not have been on the second line to start, he easily could’ve worked his way up the lineup if he impressed. With some added time in college to battle for a championship in the NCAA on his mind, when it’s all said and done, Knies could be with the Maple Leafs at season’s end this time around. There’s a good chance that if and when his collegiate career is over, the second line left wing spot is his.
Should the Maple Leafs look to promote players from within and address a potential opening on the left wing side on the second line, they have options. Robertson, Holmberg and Knies show the skillset and drive to be factors in a top-six role. Robertson may have the advantage, but the other two are close behind.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.