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Top 25 Under 25: Pontus Holmberg finds a holm at #18

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Sweden v Kazakhstan - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

Your expectations out of a sixth-round pick should be modest. They should be so modest they get promoted and don’t tell their spouse so as not to “make a big deal.” They should be so modest they wear their work clothes to a Halloween party and make self-effacing jokes about not having any costume ideas. They should be as modest as Modest Mouse back when Modest Mouse was just three guys recording northwestern indie rock in a flooded trailer.

Once you level set appropriately, you can better appreciate players like Pontus Holmberg. Because while he’s still very long odds for the NHL, Pontus did put on his work clothes, and it might one day get him promoted.

Holmberg is this year’s #18.

Votes - Pontus Holmberg

Player Pontus Holmberg
Player Pontus Holmberg
2020 Rank 18
katya 19
seldo 18
species 20
arvind 21
fulemin 17
hardev 15
brigstew 21
taaeeve 23
omar 21
annie 21
kevin
rahef 19
Average Rank 20.08
Lowest Rank 23
Highest Rank 15
Spread in Rank 8
Total Votes 11

The Player

Pontus “The Pope” Holmberg* has worked his way up the ranks of his country’s hockey system, and he just wrapped up his second real season with the Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League. He’s listed as a left wing, but he’s played centre at times too. Being an everyday player at 19 and 20 in a major pro league is nothing to sneeze at, and having just turned 21 in March, Holmberg is still younger than many of the players around him in this part of the list. His age and his draft rights—the Leafs have until June 1, 2022, to offer him a contract—mean that while every season is critical for a prospect, Holmberg has perhaps a bit more runway ahead of him than the now-or-never names like Jeremy Bracco.

*(This is his nickname now. Pontus Aberg doesn’t need it anymore and it’s too good not to use. Do not challenge me.)

The league and the games played columns are the fun boxcars for Holmberg. The counting stats are a bit more pedestrian, as you can see; Holmberg’s production has crept up annually, but the kid ain’t exactly Elias Pettersson (a former Vaxjo Laker himself.) A point every three games doesn’t do much to get the blood pumping. And again: expectations should be modest. He’s a sixth-round pick and we ranked him eighteenth. If he’d done more he’d be ranked higher.

The reports on Holmberg, though, have their moments. As with every Kyle Dubas draft pick, he is described as smart, a gifted playmaker with good vision. An Expressen article from fall 2018 lauds his “game intelligence”, as Google Translate would have it. He is neither especially big nor exceptionally fast, and yet he had the trust of coaches to play a regular shift in his country’s top league as a teenager.

He had a great CF% that year too, which has since declined to mediocrity. Holmberg also played negligible time on the PP or the PK, which is not ideal; while it does help explain his point totals being lower, it’s a little less encouraging that Holmberg isn’t getting that much ice in non-EV situations. It’s worth remembering that the SHL, unlike the AHL, is not a self-described development league; Holmberg is scrapping for ice-time against veteran players in their late 20s and 30s, and Vaxjo does not exist to develop Leaf prospects the way that the Toronto Marlies partly do.

Diving into Vaxjo’s season is a mixed bag. Holmberg formed a consistent depth line with Marcus Sylvegard and Fredrik Karlstrom (the former went undrafted, latter was a third-round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2016.) During a rough stretch for Vaxjo in February, they were the only line that didn’t get stuck in the blender in an effort to salvage some offence. Vaxjo coach Sam Hallam has spoken positively of Holmberg and his trust in him to do what’s asked. Our blogboss Katya Knappe has described him as a professional-style player, not just one in name; he backchecks, he does the little things, he earns his coach’s trust.

So where does that get us?

I wouldn’t blame you for being underwhelmed. The pessimistic view on Holmberg is that he hasn’t had the production or the dynamic skill that usually presages an NHL forward career. And the pessimistic view is accurate. I like Holmberg. I don’t think he’s likely to be an NHLer.

The thing is: neither is anyone else ranked at this stage. The names here are the names of faint hopes. Once we get into this territory, the trust of coaches, a mature style of play, and an ability to do whatever’s required go a long way in determining who gets out of the lower leagues. Holmberg has only shown some of that, but he’s shown it young.

It’s worth noting that another late-round Swedish Leafs pick, Pierre Engvall, didn’t even make the SHL until his age-21 season, the one Holmberg will start next year. For Holmberg to rise up this list, or even not fall, I’ll want to see more next season: more production, more ice-time, and some special teams play. The bet in ranking Holmberg here is that his age and his hockey smarts give him a chance to develop that versatility.

I would be lying if I said I ranked Holmberg as highly as I did because I think he’s especially good. I don’t. I don’t think anyone else in this range is all that good except Jeremy Bracco, who has accumulated too much evidence that he isn’t going to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for me to rate him very highly by this point. To believe in anyone in this tier, you have to tell yourself a story about them. The story I can tell myself about Pontus Holmberg is just a little more reasonable to me than the people I put behind him.

Every once in a while one of those stories comes true. And if it ever does, Pontus Holmberg will have done one hell of a lot with those modest expectations.

Voter Quotes

Our Managing Editor Katya Knappe:

Katya: The ranking for Holmberg might be the biggest surprise to me in this T25. There’s things higher up I’ll dispute, but I’m not sure I get how my sentimental favourite ranked so high. However, he is one of those tough to evaluate players. He plays hockey extremely well and cannot, at all, in any way, score goals to save his life. He makes Zach Hyman (who he resembles a lot in other ways) look like he’s got hot hands. In Holmberg’s defence he has played on a team so offensively challenged while using Viktor Fasth as their starter that anyone might look like a little less than gifted in that situation. He can third line grind. He can fourth line grind. He gets played on the top line when the coach wants an example of hard work. And if he had half of even Pierre Engvall’s scoring touch… I don’t know, maybe he’ll surprise us. And it’s not like his ranking is high, but he’ll be an unusual success story if he becomes one.

Our Marlies Expert Hardev Lad:

I had no idea I had ranked Holmberg the highest out of the rest of the voters. As Fulemin said, Holmberg does have more runway to help the Leafs one day, but there’s a higher chance he doesn’t make it there relative to some of the tweeners in the system right now. Holmberg’s SHL contract ends at the end of next season, so there’s a chance we see him with the Marlies at the tail end of the season, and potentially the playoffs if they get there? I feel like I’m hedging my bets here a little bit. I’m hoping when we all get to see Holmberg up close he’ll look something similar to who he’s been in Katya’s european reports and in the tournaments he’s played in the last few years. From my perspective, the most successful Marlies (Gauthier, Moore, Engvall, and potentially Adam Brooks) all had a really strong foundation of being able to play the fundamentals. After having defensive assignments, forechecking and cycling, and the penalty kill down pat, they were pretty much write-in fourth liners. Any offense they provided was gravy. The Marlies have also shown a strong ability to develop puck skills, Gauthier is case in point. Dermott, Holl, and potentially Rubins and their skating improvements are another example. I really think that if you have the fundamentals, the Leafs will find a spot for you. They’ve succeeded with those guys more often than not.

Video

It ain’t much, but this is what we get.

Poll

Where should Pontus Holmberg be ranked on this list?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    18th is about right
    (156 votes)
  • 10%
    Higher than this
    (30 votes)
  • 36%
    Lower than this
    (106 votes)
292 votes total Vote Now