Leafs’ Pontus Holmberg an example of prospect development

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Pontus Holmberg has played more games in his career for the Maple Leafs than the Marlies. Count that as a win for the organization.

Holmberg represents the kind of found money every NHL team is hoping to stumble upon in the late rounds of the draft. Selected 156th in 2018 and left in Sweden for four years of additional development with Växjö HC, the 23-year-old impressed immediately upon his arrival in Toronto last spring.

Kyle Dubas specifically highlighted Holmberg during his end-of-season press conference. The general manager had just sat down with some of the organization’s top American Hockey League players for an exit meeting and told them there would be jobs to fill this season. He expected Holmberg to factor strongly into that mix.

“What their opportunity is going to be in training camp was made abundantly clear, what they’re competing for,” Dubas said in May. “We do need those players to begin converting from being good prospects and good Marlies to good players for the Leafs.”

Holmberg appears to have crossed the divide. He has dressed for 15 straight games in Sheldon Keefe’s lineup since a second NHL call-up in mid-November, delivering reliable minutes and a dash of offence in the fourth-line centre role while earning the highest of praise from his head coach.

“I can’t find this guy making a mistake,” Keefe said recently. “He is incredibly smart.”

His emergence has added another element to the Rubik’s Cube that is the bottom of the Leafs’ lineup. The team has dressed 30 different skaters this season, in large part due to injury but also because Keefe is clearly still searching for the right mix there.

At full health, the Leafs’ bottom-six forward group is likely composed of some variation of Alexander Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Calle Järnkrok, David Kämpf, Zach Aston-Reese and Holmberg.

That’s assuming, of course, that Keefe continues to use his “Core Four” forwards exclusively on the top two lines, rather than spreading them across three. The Boston Bruins are the class of the league this season and they’re currently opting to chase balance by deploying players on a third line (Taylor Hall-Charlie Coyle-Trent Frederic) that have combined for more even-strength goals than those on the two groups slotted ahead of them.

There are merits to both approaches and it would be pretty tough to second-guess what Toronto has done while putting together a 19-6-6 start amid a decimating run of injuries. The big boys have been carrying the mail.

As the March 3 trade deadline draws nearer, it will be interesting to see how the lineup evolves or changes. The most obvious hole to this point has been at second line left wing, with neither Denis Malgin nor the now-injured Nick Robertson gaining much traction there.

Kerfoot has also skated in that position at various points in recent years, but there’s a belief that the best version of this team includes him in the bottom six.

Even in a year where his offensive output has dropped considerably — “He’s a better player than his production would show,” Keefe said of Kerfoot earlier this week — the Leafs are scoring enough as a group to have success. The team’s forwards have accounted for 67 goals at even strength, compared to 63 for Boston’s.

That won’t keep them from searching out ways to augment and improve the attack, with possible options coming from the trade market or even their own prospect pool. Matthew Knies is a six-foot-three left-winger currently having a strong year at the University of Minnesota and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Leafs take another shot at convincing him to turn pro following the NCAA season in March.

Knies was the 57th pick in the 2021 draft by Toronto and could be playing NHL games before the playoffs start.

Big picture, this should be an exciting time for those looking to make a breakthrough in the organization.

Every Leafs hopeful need only zoom out slightly to spot the opportunity on the horizon. The team has just 11 NHL skaters under contract for next season. Even though additional spots will eventually be filled with extensions, trades and free-agent acquisitions, there is going to be a need for internal solutions, too.

Holmberg is a shining example of what’s possible. He was neither highly touted nor considered a can’t-miss prospect even after leading the SHL playoffs in scoring and helping Växjö win a championship in 2021. He just kept steadily taking strides in his game before making good on his NHL audition over the last month.

Organizations need to unearth players from wherever they can, but the best ones seem to continuously develop their own.

Chris Johnston writes about sports for NorthStar Bets. NorthStar Bets is owned by NordStar Capital, which also owns Torstar, the Star’s parent company. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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