Åberg Emerging as Top Talent
By: Jason Karnosky
It took just 12 minutes and 15 seconds of his first American Hockey League game for Milwaukee Admirals forward Pontus Åberg to give fans an inkling of something special ahead.
On opening night, October 14, 2014, against Charlotte, Åberg took the puck with a head of steam from his own end, raced across the middle of the ice and forced a one-on-one situation with the Checkers’ Dennis Robertson. He then faked inside, blew around the Charlotte defenseman on the wide side (as Robertson helplessly tried to check him) and squeezed a shot through goaltender Drew MacIntyre’s left arm.
The highlight reel, coast-to-coast, tally was a signal that Åberg had the potential to develop into a game-changer offensively for Milwaukee and later the Nashville Predators.
This season that enormous promise has become a reality as Åberg ranks tied with Wade Megan of Chicago as the AHL’s leading goal scorer. Milwaukee’s Super Swede has a chance to become his team’s first-ever league leader in that category.
“I’ve been trying to work as hard as I can every night to try to score goals and points for the team,” said Åberg, who sits on top of the league in goals per game. “It’s the playoff push and I’m playing for a new contract this year too, so I want to keep playing well and (scoring big goals).”
Admirals coach Dean Evason knows just how important Åberg is to playoff-bound Milwaukee (41-25-4-3—88 points, 3rd in Central Division).
“It’s been fun to watch (Pontus) play and he’s doing things on the ice that are exciting to see,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said. “When you lead the league in goals, that’s pretty good thing.”
Getting Åberg to this point in his development process took a bit longer than expected as Nashville’s second-round pick from 2012 suffered through growing pains while building a well-rounded game. In his first North American professional season Åberg contributed 16 goals and 34 points with Milwaukee. It was a fine rookie campaign but even more was expected of the talented the Stockholm, Sweden native.
“People take time to develop and Pontus has gone through a process to get to this point,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said. “It’s exciting to see how far he’s come with his game and his work ethic.”
In his second season with Milwaukee Åberg upped his goal total to 25 (and 40 points), while missing just two games all season. Under coach Evason’s watchful eye the explosive right winger was maturing, and it showed late in the year. Åberg finished 2015-16 with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in his team’s final 21 games, helping the Admirals return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
His fine play got rewarded with a first-ever National Hockey League (NHL) call up as Nashville battled San Jose in the second-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Facing a 2-0 deficit in games, Predators coach Peter Laviolette dressed Åberg to help counteract the Sharks’ speed advantage. Though the then 22-year-old did not play a lot, he was a part of two wins on home ice.
Fast forward to 2016-17 where nearly every time this season Åberg steps onto the ice decked out in a Milwaukee sweater, something magical happens. At the AHL level the third-year forward ranks as a point-per-game performer, racking up 31 goals and 21 assists in 54 games to date.
“(Pontus)’ skill level is incredible,” Evason said. “(But) he’s put it all together this year,”
To put those numbers into perspective, Åberg contributed nearly 15% of Milwaukee’s 212 goals so far this season. Those 31 tallies are six more than the team’s second leading scorer Frederick Gaudreau and nearly double Vladislav Kamenev’s 20.
“(Pontus’) skill level is so high, he could be an NHL player on any given team,” Admirals forward Justin Kirkland said. “He (and) Freddy are leading the way every night for us.”
Åberg’s numbers might be even more impressive if talented forward not earned three call-ups already this season. His first stint with Nashville was an extended period in November which saw the NHL rookie dress for nine games, helping the Predators post a sparkling 7-2 record.
He earned his first NHL point in just his second NHL regular season game—an assist on James Neal’s game-winning goal against St. Louis on November 10. Åberg’s first NHL goal helped the Predators pummel host Ottawa 5-1 seven days later.
Åberg later returned to Nashville for six more games, two in January and four in February, before rejoining the Admirals in the middle of the playoff chase.
“The last time I was with Nashville I tried to play more like I play here in Milwaukee and not hold back,” Åberg said. “I can still do a little bit more there and I’m working on creating more chances and playing more of my game. Hopefully I can get back up there soon.”
Åberg was a huge reason why on Tuesday night Milwaukee was able to join Midwest Division rivals Grand Rapids and Chicago in the AHL postseason. Dating back to February 28 the 23-year-old has five multi-goal games, capped by scoring a pair in the Admirals most recent 7-2 win over Texas on Sunday.
“Pontus has worked harder, consistently, than we’ve ever seen him this year,” Evason said. “That’s what’s allowed him to play in the National Hockey League as much as he has this year. He’s gone to another level with his game, to an NHL level, and that’s been something really good to see.”
With Åberg now a proven quantity in the AHL the next step is to become a vital performer on this year’s playoff run, whether that be in Milwaukee or in Nashville, and obtaining full time playing status in the NHL.
“They don’t really have room for him up in Nashville right now, otherwise he would not be here playing with us,” Evason said of Aberg. “Nashville has a lot of skilled and talented players, but Pontus won’t be with us too much longer if he continues with this type of play.”
For now that means doing what he does best for the Admirals, which is skate fast, make spectacular plays and score big goals. Milwaukee will need every one of those assets if the Admirals hope to enjoy a long spring in the postseason.