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Should We Worry About Pontus Aberg?

The young Swedish winger made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs. Can he make the leap from AHL to NHL and make a difference for the Predators this season?

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Pontus Aberg (he wants it pronounced “Ay-berg”) was widely expected to step up his production coming into this season. With two goals in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, including a huge game-winning-goal against Anaheim in Game 5, much was expected out of the young Swedish winger this season.

The argument was made that players like Craig Smith, Kevin Fiala, and Pontus Aberg (among others) would be able to step up this season after the loss of James Neal to the Expansion Draft. Personally, I have very high hopes for Aberg.

To Recap: Pontus Aberg was drafted 37th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. The Stockholm native was a regular scoring threat in many Swedish leagues, and represented Sweden in several international junior tournaments.

This summer, he signed a two-year bridge deal that will see him make $1.3 million at the NHL level.

Aberg had three incredible seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals. He made the leap to the United States in 2014 and proceeded to put up 16 goals and 18 assists in the 2014-2015 season. The transition to North American ice is sometimes difficult for overseas players, because North American ice is smaller and there is far less space to create chances. Aberg was successful.

In the 2015-2016 season, he played in 74 games for the Admirals. His numbers that season were fantastic: 25 goals and 15 assists for 40 points. That production earned him a call-up to the big club during the playoffs. Aberg skated in two games.

NHL via Getty Images

Last season, Aberg jumped between the Predators and the Admirals. In the AHL, he scored 31 goals and notched 21 assists, good for 52 points. Those totals occurred over 56 games.

With the big club, Aberg skated in 15 games, scored one goal, and added one assist. He skated in another 16 games during the playoffs and contributed 5 points: 2 goals and 3 assists.

This season, Aberg has suited up in 15 games. He’s also spent some quality time in the press box. What’s most curious is Aberg’s 4-game conditioning stint in Milwaukee. He skated in 4 games for the Admirals and scored 4 goals and added 2 assists. Um…boom?

Aberg was #4 on OTF’s “Top 25 Under 25” list compiled this summer by Eric.

He is, as was mentioned by Eric, an unknown at the NHL level. What we’ve seen so far this season has not been mind-blowing. Perhaps it’s an issue of becoming comfortable in the top league.

Chris noted in August that Aberg’s success would depend on his deployment and linemates. He is speedy and skilled and obviously has tons of upside.

It’s evident that things are not converting immediately for Aberg this season. I explored several issues for Aberg’s nonexistence thus far. Is Aberg aware of the pressure placed on him to support the team? Does that pressure make him grip his stick a little tighter? Is Aberg similar to Taylor Beck, another Predators player that beasted in the AHL but could not make things happen in the NHL?

Do Aberg’s linemates affect his on-ice production? I looked at his linemates last season. Known goal-scorers Filip Forsberg, Mike Fisher, and Viktor Arvidsson were on the ice when Aberg scored.

During his conditioning trip and in the previous two seasons, Aberg’s linemates in Milwaukee have mostly been known quantities to Predators fans. Names like Alexandre Carrier, Trevor Smith, Frederick Gaudreau, and Vladislav Kamenev have the most assists on Aberg’s goals.

This season, he’s seen time primarily with Calle Jarnkrok, Scott Hartnell, and Nick Bonino.

His time on ice has varied. He’s seen as few as 6 minutes and as many as 16 minutes. In the games he’s played since his conditioning trip to Milwaukee, he’s looked better than he did to start the season. Of course, this is just the eye-test.

This week against Dallas and Boston, Aberg slotted in on a makeshift line with Jarknrok and Forsberg. He tallied his first goal of the season against Dallas. I’m sure that was a massive relief for the winger. Will Aberg continue to make the most of his opportunities with several Predators out with injuries?

Right now, it’s pretty clear that Aberg is a player due for a massive breakout with the Predators. It seems that many have expected Aberg’s path to be similar to Arvidsson’s, with a full season at the AHL under his belt followed by a season of up-and-downs between the big club and the Admirals. Their paths might not be so similar.

Unfortunately, Aberg’s sample size with the Predators is very small. Perhaps the coaching staff really hasn’t seen enough of Aberg to know how to properly utilize him. Perhaps Aberg hasn’t given the coaches any reason to look closer.

Did the Admirals fail Aberg? Absolutely not. His production in the AHL has been stellar. He’s shown incredible promise with the Predators, but 20-ish games into the season, he’s been underwhelming. With Aberg, there are flashes of brilliance and long stretches of mediocre play.

Perhaps this is a situation in which Aberg’s NHL success is sluggish. Now that he’s grabbed his first goal of the season, maybe his increased confidence will help him put more pucks in the net. That’s the best-case scenario for the winger. Realistically, a lack of production long-term makes him trade bait.

Whether Aberg’s struggles are the result of ineffective line combinations remains to be seen. He has incredible speed and could play on an equally quick line. He’s not exactly a defensive forward, so balancing a line that could counter threats in the Predators zone might be beneficial. He looked incredibly comfortable with Jarnkrok and Forsberg early this week, but we know that Coach Laviolette will shuffle lines around once he has Ryan Johansen and Scott Hartnell fully healthy.

The problem with Pontus is simple: there are many skilled forwards in the Predators system. Names like Anthony Richard, Emil Petterson, Tyler Kelleher, and Harry Zolnierczyk are putting up consistent AHL points as the season moves into December. There’s also a kid named Eeli Tolvanen tearing up the KHL. If Aberg cannot produce with the Predators, there are several up-and-coming Predators prospects that could quickly replace him in the lineup.

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