Pontus Holmberg follows a bit of a familiar tale for Maple Leafs fans, at least in recent years. He was a late round draft pick — the 6th round in fact — as an overager, way back in 2018. In a very general sense, he followed in the recent footsteps left for him by Andreas Johnsson and Pierre Engvall.
Since then Holmberg showed small but steady improvements over in the SHL, not just in terms of point production but also rising up his Swedish team’s depth chart. By the time he finished his last season in Sweden, he was an SHL playoff MVP and finished as their first line center. He was also playing for Sweden at the Olympics, which were lacking regular NHLers, after a solid if unspectacular series of stints for their World Junior and World Championship teams.
Holmberg now not only made the NHL but has gained a sizeable group of appreciators who just love the way he plays. At the pre-season camp this year, there were some rumblings and press clippings from Dubas and Keefe about him being one of many AHL prospects who could compete for an NHL roster spot. But we’ve all heard that song and dance before, about several prospects or NHL vets on AHL deals — most of whom never even got into a single NHL game for Toronto.
But Holmberg? After starting the season in the AHL, with only 4 points in 9 games, he was given a shot in the NHL after some injuries and hasn’t looked back. He’s just a Little Things King. He has good positioning, he is reliable defensively, he makes smart plays with the puck that may not be flashy but are effective and reliably. He doesn’t have a lot of high end skill, I’d say that his “hockey IQ” is his most valuable skill with maybe his shot being his best offensive skill.
It’s no surprise that Keefe has seemingly taken a real liking to him, or that pretty much everyone else has as well. He showed it again last night with a nifty deflection goal against Detroit last night that helped the Leafs win.
PONTUS HOLMBERG 🚨— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 8, 2023
DEFLECTED HOLM pic.twitter.com/pd6aBSzvym
It is kinda funny that Holmberg, like Engvall and Johnsson, come from an era of the Leafs that are not considered to have been good from a draft perspective. But hey, you could have bet pretty reliably on their Swedish scouts finding some hidden gems in the late rounds!
ONTO THE LINKS
There will be dance and drum performances incorporated into the game intermissions with an special DJ for the event. The concourse is going to feature some food and drink from special concessions, and the club patrons (yes the people in the Platinum Club seats) get a special creation of chef Paul Owl.
When it comes to the Leafs cap space situation the simple answer is that there isn’t any. From day one of the season the Leafs have been exceeding the salary cap and relying on long term injured reserve cap relief to allow them to ice a competitive lineup. Liljegren being on LTIR to start the year made Toronto cap compliant and four games in the Leafs have been using Jake Muzzin’s cap relief amongst cap relief from others to enjoy a 23 player roster and make modest upgrades like bringing in Conor Timmins.
The Leafs, led by Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan, have built another strong team, but they still have a clear hole on the second line and have yet to replace defenseman Jake Muzzin, who may not return this season.
Both see ice time in all situations, and Sheldon Keefe likes to use both to close games out when the Leafs have the lead. That speaks to how much the coach trusts each player. Alex Kerfoot regularly moves up to the top six, and in the event of an injury to a center, he’s usually the first player to shift to the middle. Engvall is a third-line mainstay, but they have played him across all three positions there. There is an element of versatility that they value in both players.
With his new club, Grebyonkin was immediately given a chance to prove his worth. The Maple Leafs’ prospect generates offence with pace and skill; he looks to use his hands to get an inch, then takes a mile with his pure speed. He’s not small like many other Russian prospects who fit his style of play, so adapting to the higher physicality level of the KHL has been much less of an issue than other players have faced. He’s found his spot in the line-up with Amur, averaging just under 17 minutes a game and has scored at a 0.48 point per game clip. As the second-youngest player on one of the worst teams in the league, he’s put together a very impressive season.
Context is needed, though. HIFK is the lowest-scoring team in the entire Liiga as of this writing, making Hirvonen’s 15 points comfortably enough the fourth-highest mark on the team. Things are starting to heat up of late too, with the 20-year-old centre finding the back of the net in each of his last three games.
Hirvonen’s game remains projectable and well-suited to the pro ranks. He’s a crafty off-puck threat around the net, consistently sneaking his way to the net-front with a perfect sense of timing for passes from the boards or behind the net. He’s diligent on the defensive side of the puck, too, intercepting passes in the slot and creating steals on the forecheck.