The Toronto Maple Leafs have had to deal with a number of injuries already this season. Players like John Tavares, Mitch Marner and, now, Andreas Johnsson have all missed extended time due to a wide-range of injuries.
What that’s meant for the Maple Leafs is that younger – maybe less-experienced – players have been forced to step into situations that require them to take on different roles throughout the lineup. Guys like Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall have played bigger roles than maybe they expected to this season – including Engvall having played significant time on the penalty kill so far for the team since his call up from the AHL.
Now, after the team placed Johnsson on injured reserve with no return expected until at least after Christmas, another call-up will likely get the chance to play on the Maple Leafs top line alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Enter Pontus Aberg – a player who has seen NHL action already in his career and a 26-year-old that has shown signs of brilliance in his first season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Aberg: A Numbers Game
Originally drafted in the second round, 37th overall, in 2012 by the Nashville Predators, Aberg has played 127 regular season games at the NHL level with Nashville, Edmonton, Anaheim and Minnesota over parts of three seasons.
In 2018-19, he split time between the Ducks and Wild racking up 12 goals and 25 points in 59 games between the two clubs. So there’s no arguing that he’s had the chance to show what he can do at the NHL level.
Still, his AHL numbers with the Marlies may be the main reason as to why he’s getting an opportunity to play on Toronto’s top line. In 22 games so far with the Marlies, Aberg has 10 goals and 24 points – leading the team in points prior to his call up.
But Aberg doesn’t just bring regular season experience to the Maple Leafs. In fact, the 26-year-old was a part of the Predators team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016-17 where he played 16 games for the Preds accumulating five points over that span.
But with that kind of experience and having showed that he does have some offensive upside, why is it that Aberg hasn’t found a way to stick in the NHL so far? And what can he bring to the Maple Leafs’ top line alongside Matthews and Nylander that makes him the worthy candidate for the team’s latest call-up?
What Makes This Time Different for Aberg?
His numbers with the Marlies are an easy, surface reason as to why the team made the call to bring him to the big club. With 24 points in 22 games, it’s a relatively simple decision to make based on the needs of the team both for offence and positionally with the absence of Johnsson.
That said, there’s more to the call-up than simply pulling the top scorer from their in-town affiliate. And it has to do with the fact that he knows the league already, according to head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“The biggest thing is just that he’s played in the league, he’s had success in the league, he’s scored in the league before and he’s played with good players before,” said Keefe in an article by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “Obviously me coaching him in the American League, I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing at that level when he’s playing at his best, so we’re going to give him an opportunity here to show that he can belong.”
And the opportunity is there for the young forward. With Johnsson likely out until the new year, the Maple Leafs could rely heavily on Aberg and the rest of the Matthews line to get their offence out of the funk that they seem to be in.
What’s more is that Aberg knows what this opportunity can mean for him and his aspirations of earning a permanent spot in the NHL. And while he won’t take it lightly, he does feel that things off the ice have prepared him to handle his role as a pro athlete in a much more mature way.
“When I have a bad game or the team’s playing bad, I don’t have to get down on myself or anything,” said Aberg in the Johnston article regarding his growth as a player stemming from the birth of his daughter, Molly. “I have to be happy around my daughter and she brings joy. She’s always happy, even [if] we lose or win, so that’s been huge for me the past two years.”
Aberg, Keefe Reunited
Aberg is also getting the chance to reunite with his former Marlies coach Keefe as his makes his jump back into the NHL. While it was Keefe’s first year with Aberg on his team, Aberg credits the Maple Leafs’ new bench boss with instilling confidence in his abilities and giving him the opportunity to grow offensively this season.
“He was positive towards me since I got down there and he had a smile when I walked in here today,” said Aberg after being reunited following the call up. “A great coach and a great human being.” (from ‘Leafs recall Pontus Aberg as an A-1 sub for injured Johnsson’, Toronto Sun – 12/6/19)
As for who he will get to play with, Aberg understands the opportunity that lays ahead of him with the big club.
“Those are two players (Matthews and Nylander) you want to play with. If you can’t get the puck, you can’t score,” he said in the Toronto Sun article in regards to his new linemates.
Aberg will add some strong skill set to an already impressive line. His speed and ability to move the puck should factor in to how well he does with the Maple Leafs’ top line. One thing is for sure, Aberg won’t get a better chance than this to prove what he can do at the NHL level. And with Johnsson out for a while, this could be just what he needs – a chance alongside Matthews and Nylander – to give himself the confidence to earn himself a full-time role at the NHL level.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.