Development key for new Maple Leafs prospect Tobias Lindberg

Tobias Lindberg was one of the nine bodies that shuffled between Ottawa and Toronto in the Dion Phaneuf trade, but could be a key to the deal if he develops into a second-liner at the NHL level.

The Toronto Marlies have a luxury not many, if any, teams in the American League enjoy. When the parent team is out of town, the Marlies have access to two ice surfaces in the same building. And they use them. At one point during practice, coach Sheldon Keefe splits the groups up, with one going to one rink for skill development, the other on another sheet working on systems.

And what exactly does that have to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs acquiring prospect Tobias Lindberg in the trade with the Ottawa Senators for Dion Phaneuf? Actually, quite a bit. Because how Lindberg develops under the watchful eye of Keefe will go a long way to determining how good he’ll be as an NHL player. And how good he’ll be as an NHL player will go a long way to ultimately deciding how well the Leafs did in the trade.

The Marlies have already placed Lindberg in a situation where he’ll have a good chance to succeed. When the Marlies travel to St. John’s to take on the Montreal Canadiens farm team in two games this weekend, Lindberg will play the left side of a line with fellow prospects William Nylander at center and Kasperi Kapanen on the left side. It should provide them with a good indication of where Lindberg’s game is. Most of the top-end, NHL-bound prospects the Leafs have are skill players, whereas Lindberg is more of a prototypical power forward who plays a north-south game and combines a decent amount of skill with some good size and skating ability.

That’s not to say that Lindberg is necessarily a slouch in the skill department. As the head coach of the Soo Greyhounds last season, Keefe saw Lindberg first-hand with the Oshawa Generals last season and watched a lot of his playoff games and Memorial Cup. What he saw was a big body that was difficult to contain when he used his speed, a player who scored 39 goals and 97 points in 87 regular season and playoff games. “When we played against Ottawa in the rookie tournament, I thought he was a dominant player for them,” Keefe said. “In the rookie tournament he scored an overtime winner against us and he scored an overtime winner against us recently when we played Binghamton. There’s a lot to offer there.”

And that is where his development comes in. Lindberg has the raw tools and took the step of playing major junior last season instead of staying in Sweden to help his pro prospects. What the Leafs/Marlies do now with him is crucial and having an organization that has finally placed a premium on development is going to help. In fact, Lindberg made a very interesting observation in his first practice with his new team. “We did a lot of skill work, which was new to me,” Lindberg said. “We didn’t really do that stuff a lot in Ottawa, so I liked that.”

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If you’re a Maple Leafs fan and you hear something like that, it should warm the cockles of your heart. The pain that Mike Babcock predicted is indeed being inflicted at the moment and the team the Leafs ice most nights is as good as the standings say it is. But everything the Leafs have done under president Brendan Shanahan has been positive. And developing players has been paramount. Having GM Lou Lamoriello has been a godsend. Take the Phaneuf trade, for example. The Senators were the ones who reached out to him, so he knew he had leverage. And he used it to pry Lindberg and a second-round pick out of the Senators and to have them pick up all of Phaneuf’s cap space.

TSN head scout Craig Button describes Lindberg as a ‘B’ prospect, one that will almost certainly play in the league at some point, whose contribution will be determined. “Is he going to be a second-line guy or a third-round guy, is he going to be a 30-40 point guy or a 40-50 point guy?” Button said. “He’s a smart player and he plays with good tempo and has good puck skills.”

Now it’s up to the Leafs to take that and make it into an NHL player. If they can do that and Lindberg can develop into an effective second-line player, the Leafs win the trade by an even bigger margin. Whether or not that happens will be up to him and how the Leafs develop him.

Lindberg and Nylander are actually good friends. They played together as kids and train together in the summer under the eye of Nylander’s father, former NHLer and Mississauga Steelheads assistant coach Michael Nylander, along with the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Carl Hagelin, Rickard Rakell, Marcus Kruger and Niklas Kronwall.

“I think this is a great opportunity for me,” Lindberg said. “They’re kind of in a rebuild and that works great for young players who want to have a shot at making the team. And they have a great new head coach who should inspire a lot of guys to work extra hard and I want to be one of those guys.”