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Pontus Holmberg is the Leafs 19th ranked prospect

I wrote Holmberg’s 2019 Prospect Ranking, and one of my key points was how the Leafs traded for a pick to draft him. That’s a universal indicator that the team has intimate knowledge of a player, in this case it would be from Swedish scout Thommie Bergman. He is the same scout the Leafs had assigned to Sweden at the time they drafted Nylander, Johnsson, Engvall, and Liljegren, so it’s safe to say they trust his judgement.

Holmberg was selected in his second time eligible for the draft, 156th overall (2018). He played in 2 SHL games that season but didn’t record a point, playing mostly in lower level Swedish leagues. It was 2018-19 where he had a breakout season, recording 10 points in 47 SHL games for Vaxjo.

Pontus remains on Vaxjo this season, where he mostly plays Center. There are three other Cs with more draws taken though, and he does quite poorly in the faceoff circle. Despite that he’s 6th amongst Vaxjo forwards in TOI/G, so he clearly spends some time on the wing as well.

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Rank – Grade – NHL Readiness

19th – C – 2-4 YEARS

Position: C

Age: 21

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Height: 5’11”

Weight: 179 lbs

Shoots: Left

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Drafted: 2018 6th round, 156th overall

What kind of player is he?

Watching his highlights, Pontus Holmberg doesn’t make many flashy plays or beat goalies with a great shot. He creates value by moving the puck into the offensive zone with his feet, and passing into high danger areas. What sets him apart is his efficiency in doing so, looking to push the puck deeper into the zone and closer to the net every time he gets ahold of it.

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I would consider Homberg a pass-first player, but he has decent hands that he uses to finish plays in tight. He’s not strong or aggressive enough to forge a path to the net, but he uses the threat of a pass to create space. The more I learn about him, the more I think Holmberg is a very well rounded player who just needs to develop one standout tool.

He’s light on his feet, he can accelerate quickly and that helps with his zone entries. His passing is probably his best attribute, and the numbers suggest he performs well in the defensive zone. His shots are well placed, but if he can find a way to beat more goaltenders with his release Holmberg can become a real offensive threat. He got a chance to do that on the PP already this season, but needs more frequency:

It’s all a rather bland way of saying his ceiling is as a 3rd liner, and finding a special teams role will likely be his way to stand out. Holmberg is currently on Vaxjo’s 2nd powerplay unit, and logs 1:36 of PK time per game. At the NHL level I think he’d have to play wing, if he can improve his draws though it would make him more of a PK utility.

By the numbers

I’m going to compare Holmberg to his teammate and Dallas Stars draft pick Fredrik Karlstrom. Holmberg is a year younger, and Karlstrom was drafted in 2016, then signed by Dallas in the summer of 2020. Both have played in the SHL for the past 3 seasons.

2018-19

Holmberg: 3g 7a, 13:11 per game

Karlstrom: 4g 6a, 9:56 per game

2019-20

Holmberg: 7g 10a, 13:14 per game

Karlstrom: 10g 10a, 11:58 per game

2020-21

Holmberg: 5g 2a, 16:19 per game

Karlstrom: 5g 4a, 13:38 per game

 

Vaxjo has only played 12 games at the time of writing this, so both players are off to a great start. What’s interesting to me is that Karlstrom has produced more each year, but it’s always Holmberg who gets more minutes as the younger player. This is a good indication the coach trusts him to play in all situations, even more so than a player currently under NHL contract.

One area Holmberg stands out from Karlstrom is on the PK. Karlstrom gets more PP time but virtually no PK time, while Holmberg is on the 2nd PK unit. That adds an extra minute and a half per game or so for Pontus. Another good player to compare him to, Jack Drury, plays the same amount of minutes in all situations as Holmberg. Drury also has 7 points in 12 games, and was a 2nd round pick by Carolina in 2018.

This idea that coaches trust him is also supported by Holmberg’s possession numbers, which I mentioned last prospect ranking were around 60%, some of the best amongst young players in the SHL. In 2020-21 he has followed that up with respectable 53.11% CF, 57.33% FF, and just 95.29 PDO. That means when Holmberg was on the ice Vaxjo took 53% of all shot attempts, 57% of unblocked shot attempts, and the combined shooting and save percentages for his team was 95.29. When PDO is under 100 a player is considered “unlucky”, because the shooting percentage for their team was lower than average, or vice versa for save percentage.

His usage in the SHL would suggest Holmberg is a middle 6 C that kills penalties and plays a puck possession game. His aforementioned ability to move the puck to high danger areas is his primary mechanism for generating offense. He is beginning to use his shot more, but will need to continue developing it to become a threat at the NHL level.

What’s next for Holmberg?

First, Holmberg needs to finish this SHL season strong. Vaxjo is loaded with talent and always an SHL contender. If Holmberg can keep up his current production he has a chance to usurp Drury’s top 6 role, which would give him an opportunity to play with highly skilled SHL veterans down the stretch.

Holmberg is in the first year of a 2 year SHL contract, so he will likely remain in Sweden this offseason. If Karlstrom is going to be in North America for 2021-22, Holmberg will have a chance to play on the top line in Vaxjo, but it might necessitate a move to wing. Regardless, if he can put up 30 SHL points next season that’s a great indicator he’s worth an ELC.

By the time the 21-22 season concludes Holmberg will be 23, and the Leafs should have a pretty good idea what he is. If he has improved his shot, and become a top line player for Vaxjo, there’s a chance he could sign a 2 year ELC and contend for a spot on the Leafs. Given his size though, it seems more likely Holmberg needs a season in the AHL to adjust.

If he ever does make it to the NHL, Holmberg projects to be a 3rd line winger that can PK. If he remains at C then Alex Kerfoot might be a good high-end comparable. A cerebral player who has the patience with the puck to play with skilled wingers, and create dangerous chances.

Update: Pontus Holmberg was injured (upper body) in a collision with a teammate before the Karjala Cup, he is expected to miss roughly 4 weeks.