The storyline for the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason is — and surely will continue to be — the salary cap and how they will have to manage the team’s salary to fill holes within the lineup.
Case and point, this week the team went out and extended 38-year-old defenceman Mark Giordano to a two-year contract with an average annual salary of $800,000 and the story wasn’t just the fact that he signed, but that he did so for under a million dollars when he could’ve easily cashed in for more in free agency.
Now, there’s been some speculation as to what changes the Maple Leafs could see this offseason with the idea of a Kawhi-type deal floating around Leafs Nation. But with the cap the way it is — stale and no real relief in sight — the Maple Leafs and Kyle Dubas will have some major decisions to make when it comes to the club.
As for what the expectation should be, don’t expect major changes to come simply for the sake of change. Rather look for the Maple Leafs to make changes to their bottom six in an attempt to make their depth more impactful come playoff time.
However, while the Maple Leafs might have to let players like Ondrej Kaše and Ilya Mikheyev walk this summer, their respective replacements may not be coming into the organization through the same avenues that they leave. In fact, the answers might already be within the organization.
Maple Leafs’ Holmberg Deserves a Shot
We can discuss guys like Nick Robertson and Alex Steeves. Heck, even Joey Anderson is a conversation starter when it comes to what the Maple Leafs have within their organization, but we’ll discuss them at a later date.
For now, let’s focus on the one player that hasn’t seen a lot of headlines when it comes to making the jump to the NHL — Pontus Holmberg.
Holmberg was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the sixth round, 156th overall, in 2018. But it took until June 4, 2021, for the Swedish forward to sign his entry-level contract with the team — a two-year deal with an annual average value of $827,500.
The 23-year-old followed up his signing by heading back to the SHL in Sweden on loan from the Maple Leafs organization and having his best offensive season. He tallied 11 goals and 41 points in just 46 regular season games and added an assists in the four playoff games he suited up for with Växjö Lakers HC.
Even with the AHL Toronto Marlies, he scored twice and added two assists in six games, and while his game has areas for improvement, his strides in overall development can’t be ignored.
So why now? What makes him the ideal candidate for the Maple Leafs to take a waiver on to start the 2022-23 campaign?
For one, his cap hit would allow for them to fill a roster spot for cheap. Assuming they don’t make any major cap moves this offseason, that’s going to be a necessity for this team. That and the fact that Holmberg is now 23 and potentially entering a closer-to-prime spot in his career, it might be worth the Maple Leafs giving him an extended look in the bottom six to start the season.
Holmberg is a Playmaking Option
He’s an interesting player for the Maple Leafs to look at because of what he can bring to the lineup. Realistically, he could slot in on the second line as a playmaking winger or even possibly fill in where Ilya Mikheyev will likely be missing next season on the team’s third line. Either way, Holmberg has the potential to raise the level of play of his linemates regardless of where he plays in the lineup.
His skating still is slightly above average, but it’s his ability to see the ice and his skill level that could make him the viable option for the Maple Leafs to fill in for some players who might leave this offseason.
What Holmberg lacks in his skating, he makes up for in his reading of the opposition and how well he sees the ice. There’s a reason he put up 30 assists this season in the SHL and it’s no coincidence that his best season offensively came after he was a member of the SHL championship team earning MVP honours in the playoffs in 2020-21.
To top it off, the addition of Holmberg could offer an opportunity to the Maple Leafs when it comes to their highly-paid captain in John Tavares. Instead of moving Tavares to the wing, as some have speculated could be a good idea for the Maple Leafs in 2022-23, the team could leave him in the middle where he’s able to win draws and bolster his wing with Holmberg and fellow Swede, William Nylander.
Now, this is all hypotheticals, of course, but the Maple Leafs do have options within their system if the free agent market becomes too dicey for them. Simply put, Holmberg might just be the best option for the blue and white to test out when the puck drops in October.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.