It’s time for Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg to take another leap

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
28 days ago
Through the rigours of an 82-game schedule, opportunity presents itself in myriad, different ways in the National Hockey League. The story of the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs is still being written but you could argue that the defining quality of this high-octane flamethrower of a team, prone to maddening lapses, is their ability to respond to injuries thus far. Mitch Marner’s high-ankle sprain is more severe than originally anticipated while Calle Jarnkrok has been placed on long-term injured reserve with a hand injury.
It is perhaps a ghoulish notion but in the wake of Marner and Jarnkrok’s injuries, opportunity has come knocking for Bobby McMann and Pontus Holmberg. Both players weren’t lineup mainstays to begin the season, but now it’s time for the pair to take another leap this season and there’s evidence to suggest they’re both capable of it. The final 16 games of the regular season are an exercise in optimizing the playoff roster and working on tactics, formations and set plays the Maple Leafs will use in the spring. For McMann and Holmberg, it’s a chance to punctuate their spots on the roster next month.
McMann has already taken a leap and along with Simon Benoit, you could argue that he’s been the positive surprise of the season. He’s grown exponentially more confident since a Feb. 13 hat-trick against the St. Louis Blues, the turning point of his season and perhaps his career. The 27-year-old was rewarded with a two-year contract extension on March 13 and figures to be a larger part of the Maple Leafs’ plans in the immediate future. And now it’s incumbent upon McMann to take another leap if he’s pushing for extended playoff minutes — there’s reason to suggest he’s ready for it.
McMann caught fire during a six-game stretch, recording seven goals and 10 points from Feb. 13-22. Since this breakout sample, his point production has tailed off but he’s still doing plenty of things well. The Colgate University product has been temporarily elevated to a line with Max Domi and William Nylander and it’s a showcase for his speed, size and opportunism to fully coalesce. During Toronto’s last 10 games, McMann leads the team with 33 shots at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, while ranking second in individual chances created, third in rebounds created and third in hits. That’s pretty damn good! And it should lead to improved point production as well as we surmise that McMann is much better than his three percent shooting percentage over this span would lead you to believe!
From the eye test, McMann looks like a confident player. When he’s in top form and given some space to operate, McMann can create havoc against good teams. To actualize his full skill set, McMann needs to use his speed more often to punish defenders off the rush. He’s doing a better job of getting to the net and high-danger spaces lately and this needs to be a point of emphasis.
McMann’s speed is a major asset and if he continues to hound defenders aggressively, he can continue to make smart plays in space. In the clip below via Omar from The Athletic, McMann nutmegs Arber Xhekaj and then he’s off to the races, looking off his teammate and beating the goaltender clean for an equalizing goal against the Montreal Canadiens on March 9. It’s the type of smart play that separates average players from key contributors during the playoffs and an example of McMann at his best.
And even when McMann doesn’t score, using his speed to make defenders panic will continue to be a point of emphasis. He almost burned the Carolina Hurricanes on March 16 on a breakaway, flying past his opponents in open space.
McMann is fond of bursting down the wing, then circling the net and finding his teammates — John Tavares and Max Domi as prime targets lately — in transition. During puck battles in the offensive third, McMann is a willing, physical participant. And though he’s guilty of being caught too far up the ice at times on the forecheck, he also makes smart defensive reads — a quality that will be coveted during the playoffs. Toronto has controlled 53 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when McMann has been on the ice during the past 10 games and perhaps he’s due for a swap with Holmberg.
Holmberg has been promoted to the first line in Marner’s absence, playing alongside Tyler Bertuzzi and Auston Matthews. In some respects, Holmberg is the closest facsimile to Calle Jarnkrok’s everyman presence, where he can be slotted all across the lineup. His first two nights on the Matthews line have provided mixed results.
Let’s start with the positives: Holmberg acquainted himself well after being tossed onto the Matthews line after Jarnkrok suffered his injury. He scored a goal with his nominal fourth-line comrades, Connor Dewar and Ryan Reaves, on the ice. Holmberg finished with two points, three shots and most importantly, didn’t hinder Matthews’ impact.
His second game was a mixed bag. Holmberg nearly scored a goal that would’ve put Toronto up 5-2 but Sebastian Aho got in the way. It’s bad luck to be sure but it also represents the height of his offensive contributions on Saturday.
Holmberg, Matthews and Tyler Bertuzzi were outshot 6-3 at 5-on-5 against the Hurricanes, almost completely neutralized. Some credit goes to Jordan Staal for hounding Matthews but it’s incumbent upon the top-line wingers to feed Matthews and throw pucks at the net. Holmberg finished with a ghastly 22.7 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 and the tenacity that he displayed, which led Marner to profess his adoration, cannot come up in spurts.
At the risk of tinkering with a flame-throwing Maple Leafs’ offence, leading the Eastern Conference with 241 goals, McMann may have earned another promotion to the Matthews’ line, even if he’s playing on his off-wing, as his size, speed, tenaciousness and ability to make plays off the rush are key components to playing with Toronto’s No. 34. Holmberg has shown flashes of Jarnkrok, but Jarnkrok is a much better player in all facets.
As the regular season winds down with 16 games to go, now is the time for McMann and Holmberg to make another leap.
All statistics in this piece are as of Monday night**

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