What made Par Lindholm so intriguing to the Toronto Maple Leafs this year? Some scouts and analysts will break it down, talking about his smart reads, positional awareness, two-way ability, and whatever else they can describe that loudly states “I have definitely seen more of his game action than you can easily find on YouTube”. Which, I mean, fair point to them, that’s what they’re paid to do and having a qualitative report in the ammo chamber is usually better than not having one.

But anyway, the real reason he’s intriguing is this:

That’s a nice, healthy spike in points for Lindholm, particularly over the past two years. After a drop in 2015/16, the 26-year-old Swede has come up with a pair of seasons that rank him in the league’s Top 25 in scoring, picking up 31 points in 38 games in 2016/17 (23rd overall) and 47 points in 52 games (4th overall) in 2017/18. The latter puts him at a rate of 0.96 points per game, which ranks 32nd all-time by a 26-year-old in the Swedish Hockey (nee. Elite) League, as well as the third-highest in the NHL’s salary cap era and the highest in this decade, edging out… former Toronto Marlies penalty kill specialist Greg Scott?

Alright, I guess it’s time to talk context.

Defeating The Odds

National Hockey League teams are becoming more and more willing to look outside traditional venues to add skill to their lineup, which is undoubtedly a good thing. There are some really, really talented players that have either never left their local professional league because they’ve been overlooked, or players who were forced out of the North American Pro levels too early, gambled on Europe just before they hit their stride, and found a way to continue making money, even if it’s playing at a level below their abilities.

Players who fall into the latter are typically unlikely to come back; the league likes to wash itself of its perceived mistakes pretty quickly. At the same time, though, many who do get signed out of Europe in the midway stages of their career do have some form of North American experience under their belt – typically, having someone to vouch for them back home creates the opportunity.

With that in mind, Lindholm is an outlier, at least as far as middle-aged forwards who score points in Sweden go. Here’s what I came up with, after some digging:

  • Since 2005/06, 38 forwards between the Ages of 24 to 28 (“Prime” age) have had at least one season in the SEL/SHL where they’ve exceeded 0.85 points per game (roughly 70 points / 82).
  • Of this group, 21 (55%) played in the American Hockey League before their big SHL year. 12 of those players also played in the NHL, with Tomi Kallio being the only player to have prior NHL experience but no AHL experience, for a total of 13 ex-NHLers in that group (34%).
  • Of the 16 players who had no North American seasons before their Swedish breakout, just two (12.5%) went on to play in the AHL/NHL afterwards: Derek Ryan and Carl Soderberg.
  • Of the group of 22 who had North American experience, three (14%) returned to re-prove themselves: Bud Holloway, Joakim Lindstrom, and Anton Rodin.

In this case, the prior resume trope doesn’t come through convincingly, but really, there isn’t a lot of convincing going on here. If Lindholm plays even one regular season game with the Leafs, he’ll be just the sixth of this group of 38 to draw into an NHL lineup after proving themselves to have an elite SHL season.

Does that mean that all of these guys couldn’t help an NHL team? Not necessarily – many NHL teams still don’t really know what they’re doing as far as employing skill on their bottom lines, and if you look at the players on the list who had the most success in the AHL before heading to Europe, you’ll find a handful of 5’8 to 5’10 players who likely didn’t get a better opportunity or a second chance because of their size.

But there’s definitely a degree of odds-beating for Lindholm to even get to this point – players who slide under the radar of North America in their youth and become top-end SHL players at prime age are rare in this day and age, and parlaying that into catching a team’s attention after that is even rarer. We’re talking about a player who was practically never discussed in North America from his youth until today, and who played just three games for the Swedish National Team program in before the age of 25, finding his way into going from depth player to top scorer in a Top-4 Global League in the midst of his prime – that in its own is commendable.

Compared To The Survivors

So knowing that “high scoring, prime age SHL forward that found his way to the NHL afterwards” gives us a whole four players to choose from in the past thirteen years, why not compare Lindholm’s career in the league to those four players? Here’s what you get when looking at everyone’s full seasons in the league:

(Minor aside: Lindholm, Ryan, Lindstrom, and Holloway all had these seasons with Skelleftea, over the span of six years. I wonder if there’s a chicken/egg thing going on here.)

Lindholm doesn’t really come out well in rate production compared to the others here. He’s used less than anyone, scores less than anyone other than Ryan, has fewer assists than anyone, scores fewer points than anyone, and generates fewer shots than anyone besides Rodin.

Chopping everyone’s first few years and focusing on their last two before heading across the pond seems to keep most of the pack at their prior rates, while greatly benefiting Lindholm. There are two ways of looking at it: the optimistic way, which attributes Lindholm’s weaker season one and two to a lack of opportunity given to him (particularly as far as powerplay time goes), or the pessimistic way, which is that this group was quicker to gain trust. Rodin was playing real minutes by 20, Soderberg was by an SEL star by 21 (the reason for the five-year gap was because his team spent extended time in Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second tier), Lindstrom was tearing up the AHL and getting some NHL opportunity in his early 20’s, and Holloway immediately established himself upon coming over from his own AHL success.

Leafs fans are hoping that Lindholm becomes a regular NHLer, so the aspiration here is to stick with Soderberg and Ryan. It’s hard to get a feel for which of Lindholm or Ryan had the smoother development path, due to the unconventional one that Ryan took (going from the WHL to CIS, to Austria, to the SHL, to the AHL, to finally making the NHL full-time at 29 years old), but there’s a pretty clear gap between the long-term pedigree of Lindholm and Soderberg. While it’s possible he can match their NHL success, it’s unlikely that he’ll exceed it. While both of them have become solid regular NHL players who can be used in all sorts of role, neither have slipped their way into an impact tier and between them have a peak year of 36 even-strength points (Soderberg in 2015).

Not to say that is implicitly a bad thing. After all, the optimistic hope is that Lindholm will prove himself to be a candidate to replace Tyler Bozak at even strength, and Bozak hasn’t had a 40 even-strength point season in his career either. But this is still hoping that a player who broke out at the age of 25 will end up being in the Top 8% of success stories for an already select group of SHL talents, which is a steep gamble.

Still Worth Signing

While Lindholm is at an age where he’s not likely to get significantly better, and while the odds appear to be stacked against him being an impact player in the NHL given what history tells us about players like him, that doesn’t mean that the signing isn’t a good move by the Leafs organization.

For one, there’s a very low risk here. Toronto isn’t giving up an asset, the contract likely doesn’t come with significant inhibiting bonuses, and the fact that it’s an entry-level deal means that it’s a salary that’s buryable if he doesn’t make the team.

Not to mention, that list of scorers seems to suggest that, if it doesn’t work out, the Leafs have a very good option for the Marlies on their hands next season. Ryan’s first season in North America came with significant AHL time, and he gave Charlotte 55 points in 70 games. Holloway never transitioned into the NHL, but he was a high-scoring St. John’s Icecap. Rodin was a bit of a weird situation in Vancouver; injuries and mismanagement set his return to the organization back, and he ended up playing just 13 games in a season and change with the team before asking for his contract to be terminated. Lindstrom was back-and-forth in his NHL ability, but in his prior time in the AHL, was incredible.

That’s a pattern with a lot of these top scorers in their development age; of the 21 in the group of 38 that played in the AHL, 15 were at least half-point-per-game players, 11 exceeded 0.6, and eight exceeded 0.7 – about what Toronto got from Miro Aaltonen (another prior European signing in the mix for an NHL job next year) and Chris Mueller this season. Given that these players typically did their scoring while they were still developing, and still had a >33% rate of being legitimate AHL scoring threats, it’s not unrealistic to think a prime-aged Lindholm can contribute significantly to the Marlies if he doesn’t make the Leafs.

That fits more with his style of play anyway. Perhaps this is a subject worth tackling another day, but it feels like the “cerebral”, “high IQ” players that come across the pond tend to find less success than the ones signed for specific high-end skill. This likely has to do with play recognition being reliant on game pace, so I wonder if Lindholm-type players struggle with making the same decisions on NHL ice for that reason. The AHL has less (though, more than it used to) of that high-end speed and skill, which usually allows players with high-end brains but fewer physical gifts to find more success.

However, that’s just based off of scouting reports and limited footage – it might be unfair to write off him off as without NHL-calibre skills until we see him in the flesh, against players we’re more familiar with in training camp and in the pre-season, where he’ll be aiming to beat the odds once again.

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