Pontus Aberg signed a league minimum contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2019. After an uninspiring training camp, he was sent to the Toronto Marlies, pegged as one of the many lottery tickets the Leafs bought that just didn’t work out. After bouncing between five organizations in just over two years, it wouldn’t have been difficult to see the NHL dream come to an end, replaced with an easier life in Europe.
But that’s not what Aberg did. He made his way to the AHL, worked his tail off, and swiftly put up the best numbers of his career since his time with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2016-17 — the season he got called up to the Nashville Predators at the end of the year and had an explosive debut in the spotlight as his team made the Stanley Cup Finals.
Fast forward to this season and Aberg is on the Toronto Marlies third line with recently established centre in Pierre Engvall and a rotating cast of left wingers (Garrett Wilson and Nicholas Baptiste both spent time there). Together, the duo became a force at 5v5, sharing the team lead in points 15 games in before Engvall was called up. Together, they combined to score 15 goals, averaging 5.9 shots per game.
I really liked Aberg on the Marlies. Even after Engvall got called up, Aberg posted eight points (2g, 6a) on 20 shots in the seven games since with Tanner MacMaster as his centre. No offense to MacMaster, but he hasn’t been able to show the ability to drive play and put up points to the same degree Engvall has the last couple years. And yet, MacMaster is nearly a point per game (3g, 3a) on nine shots in seven games since being put on the third line.
Aberg is a smart, shifty winger who has the really great ability of finding the weak spots on the ice in and around the net and exploiting them for chances. His vision below the hash marks has also been impressive, as he’s been able to provide those backdoor passes to his teammates when he has the puck in the corner. He reminds me of a Tyler Johnson-type player in this way.
I would describe Aberg’s transition play as direct and confident. He’s always making the correct breakout play, always moving the puck up the ice with his teammates. He has strong fundamentals with and without the puck and it allows him to be creative within the space he’s given, when given the chances. There are no questions about his quickness, nor whether he can handle himself along the boards. Like most small players, he’s pretty slippery.
In terms of usage, the Marlies play their four forward lines pretty consistently, so Aberg was accomplishing all his offensive production in about 15 minutes plus power play time. Eight of Aberg’s 24 points this season have come on the power play, including three goals. He is the right-shot on the left wing (opposite Jeremy Bracco on his strong side) and is the primary shooter with one of the three defensemen the Marlies use on the power play (Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, and Teemu Kivihalme).
As mentioned before, one thing he does well on the power play is sneak into the soft areas of the ice while Bracco is holding attention on the opposite side. This allows Aberg to take advantage of rebound shots and backdoor passes. The Marlies have always liked the backdoor pass that Bracco provided on the power play; Chris Mueller was perfect in the role. Now, with Egor Korshkov in front of the net, they’ve been focused more on point shots, screens, and rebounds. Aberg fit in that role well as he’s a better shot than Dmytro Timashov — both in frequency and accuracy — and is able to play that backdoor role if needed.
As for Aberg the person, Sportsnet wrote a really nice piece about Aberg’s life as a single dad and his love for his daughter. Please grab a tissue box before you start reading, there will be tears.
This is a big opportunity for Aberg; first line minutes with Auston Matthews and William Nylander after the hottest start to the season he’s had in years. He looked really comfortable and confident with the Marlies, so one hopes he’s able to carry that forward in a much bigger arena.