When the Toronto Maple Leafs essentially revamped their entire front office in 2014, beginning with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as the President of Hockey Operations, there were many noticeable differences. Everything from the way management dealt with the media to the way brass handled player development.
As the dominoes fell and guys like Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock, Mark Hunter, and Lou Lamoriello were brought in, the general vibe around the team changed. Despite three of the four names I just listed no longer being with the team, the Leafs have still changed for the better in a plethora of different ways. One of these ways was in the scouting department.
Good Scouting Is Crucial to NHL Success
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, a draft genius, or a hockey oracle to know that having a good scouting staff and development team is crucial to having success. Sure, having first-round picks is nice, and you’ll likely get a top prospect out of it, but the draft doesn’t stop after the 31st pick.
Striking gold in the late rounds of the draft every once in a while is something every perennial Cup contender does. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings, who, led by sixth-round pick Pavel Datsyuk and seventh-round pick Henrik Zetterberg, remained such a dominant team from the late 90s until the mid-2010s.
Between 2007 and 2014, the Leafs only drafted five players who made somewhat of an impact on the team. Those four being Matt Frattin, Carl Gunnarsson, Connor Brown, Andreas Johnsson, and Pierre Engvall. Woof.
What I’m getting at here, obviously, is that the Leafs were absolutely horrid on the draft front for many years. But we’re starting to see more and more of these guys develop and actually become useful NHL options. And while it’s still too early to tell, I want to shine a light on a prospect by the name of Pontus Holmberg.
Holmberg’s Career Overseas
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft, the 5-foot-11 Swedish winger has been in the Vaxjo Lakers HC organization for his entire post-draft career. The Leafs took a flyer on him as a long-term project after he put up 20 points in 36 games for VIK Vasteras HK of Sweden’s HockeyEttan league, essentially their version of the ECHL.
Since then, Holmberg has been steadily improving as a player. He put up ten points through 47 games in his first full season for Vaxjo in 2018-19, and his play was good enough to earn him a spot on Sweden’s World Junior team that same year.
He improved to 17 points in 52 games in 2019-20, and this year, he had his best season to date. Having turned 22 in March, he put up 23 points in 45 games for the team. His season-by-season numbers may not be eye-popping in any way, but when you consider the fact that he’s playing against grown men and likely not getting too much ice time, to see consistent improvements in his game every year is pretty promising.
And to reiterate, most European pro hockey teams aren’t concerned about their younger players’ development and what it means for the NHL team that holds their rights. They’re going to play their players as they see fit. They’re more worried about getting their own championship rather than acting as a development league for the NHL.
And the highlight of Holmberg’s career was yet to come. His Lakers took home the SHL championship, and not only did he lead his team in scoring with 14 points in 14 games, but he was also named MVP of the entire tournament. Not bad for some 22-year-old kid, eh?
Maple Leafs Have Nothing to Lose
While it’s entirely possible that Holmberg spends another year or two in his home country, I think the Leafs would be wise to offer him an entry-level contract. Because he was drafted in 2018, the Leafs will hold his rights until June of 2022. And they don’t exactly have a logjam of prospects clogging up the Marlies.
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There’s been a little bit of a trend in the way that Dubas and Co. deal with their European prospects. They typically let them play out however long they need to until they’re comfortable enough and ready to come to North America. But ultimately, the goal is always to get them playing for the Marlies. It makes for better scouting and makes it easier for management to keep an eye on their young talent.
We saw it with William Nylander. We saw it with Johnsson. With Engvall. Whether these players are ready for the AHL almost immediately like Nylander or need a little bit of extra time as someone like Engvall did, the goal is almost always to get them some AHL experience before they step foot onto NHL ice.
And right now, what is there to lose? The only real high-end prospects playing for the Marlies right now are Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren. And at least one of them, if not both, will be wearing a Leaf jersey next season.
The Leafs have had a thing for finding gems in the late rounds of the draft, and given the way that we’ve seen Dubas use a revolving door of players on cheap contracts in the bottom six, there’s no reason to believe Holmberg isn’t capable of at least getting a look there someday.
I’m not saying he’s going to be a star. I’m not saying he’s going to be the next Johnsson or Engvall. For all I know, he could fizzle out and head back to Sweden without even playing an NHL game. But I absolutely think he’s worth signing to an entry-level deal and getting a look in the blue and white.
Broadcasting Student at Niagara College. Born and raised Leafs fan since 2005, but fan of the sport in general. Also an avid guitarist.