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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Can Justin Holl be an NHL Defenceman?

The ongoing post-Game 7 discussion about the Leafs defence is mind-numbing – but there’s nothing better than discussing your team’s sixth or seventh defenceman in August.

Preferably, that defensive answer is already within the Leafs organization. It would ultimately be the less expensive route and there would be no need for massive rumours to be popping out from everywhere. This team would not have to sacrifice any of their heaping pile of skill that they have in the forward position to simply get someone that can pass them the puck.

Of the many defencemen that are already in the system, only a couple that were not on the Leafs consistently last year are really in contention. Calle Rosen or Martin Marincin could be that rise-from-the-ashes story after some not very watchable moments in the NHL, but neither of them are the most interesting option coming out of the Calder Cup Champion Toronto Marlies.

So is Justin Holl ready to be a full-time NHL player after a very rollercoaster career so far?

One of the glaring issues with predicting that Holl can, in fact, become an NHL regular, is that he only has two NHL games to his name and he is 26-years-old.

Age is a massive deterrent to predictability – there are hardly ever any players that are over-25 and in the AHL that then go on to have long and successful NHL careers. Of course, we are not in need of Holl to have a long career with this time (it would be nice), but just to make it to the next level is already a hard prediction at his age.

With that in mind, I have decided to compare every single AHL season by a defenceman that was over the age of 25 in the last ten years – 858 seasons in total.

viz by @emilyjomichele / data via prospect-stats.com

As seen above, this is all of those individual seasons compared by age of the defenceman to their 5v5 points/GP. There is certainly a large cluster towards the bottom corner, meaning that a lot of somewhat young defenceman (25-28) still in the AHL, but not getting that many even-strength points either.

Then there are the several seasons that spread out from the cluster, either the older or higher-scoring defencemen. That is where you can find Justin Holl.

viz by @emilyjomichele / data via prospect-stats.com

Not the youngest player or highest-scoring season we have seen from a defenceman in the last decade, but certainly a season of note. Among the 858 seasons of over-25 y/o defencemen that played at least twenty games, Holl’s 2017-18 season with the Marlies ranked 13th in 5v5 Points/GP. Sitting in that 98th-percentile of the highest-scoring even-strength seasons from defencemen mostly older than him should mean something.

If you prefer more of a specific rate stat; within the same category, Holl is 21st in Pts/e60. Since the AHL still does not keep track of TOI, Stephen Burtch’s formula to estimate a player’s TOI has to be used. So even with Holl playing a considerable amount of time throughout the Marlies blueline, he was still able to put up one of the most impressive even-strength seasons we have seen from an AHL defenceman that is over 25.

One of the key aspects to notice about this is that Holl is in higher-tier of players that were in the same age group. At his age, there are only a handful of defencemen that had a higher-scoring season than he did.

He is separated from the pack of average and aging AHL defenceman, but what about those seasons around his? Are those players even good and therefore this whole thing is useless?

To compare, here are the other seasons by defencemen that hovered around Holl’s 2017-18 campaign.

viz by @emilyjomichele / data via prospect-stats.com

As seen above, Holl is pretty squarely in the center of these defencemen of varying successful careers. Does this mean that Holl is a sure-thing full-time NHL defenceman? Well, it would certainly help to compare Holl’s young career to these players that were able to score at such a high-rate at an older age in the AHL.


T.J. Brennan

We are all too familiar with T.J. Brennan. The “AHL Bobby Orr” played a total of 164 games for the Marlies over the span of three years. That peak point in the graph above was Brennan’s 2013-14 season with the Marlies – scoring 72 points in 76 games. At even-strength, he was scoring at a  0.7 Points/GP rate that season, meaning that he had the highest 5v5 Points/GP among those 858 seasons I collected. Not only that but he is the owner of three of the top-15 seasons sorted by that metric as well. But at the same time, Brennan’s most successful season was when he was a full year older than what Holl was in 2017-18.

With all this said, he was a coaching nightmare. He was essentially a forward on the blueline, but not in a good way. That led to him only having a total of 53 NHL games under his belt – no coach wants to deal with him.

Comparing him to Justin Holl might be a little bit of a misstep. Holl has a much more balanced game than Brennan and can actually play some defence for his team. It’s a broad statement, but anyone that has seen the two players live can definitely tell that this is not an apt comparison.

Brad Hunt

The undrafted Maple Ridge, BC-native has just finished the best year in his career. Signing with the Vegas Golden Knights last July, he was able to play a total of 45 games for the Knights in their inaugural season. He scored three goals and fifteen assists in total, so not completely terrible for a bottom-pairing blueliner. Among Knights defencemen, Hunt had the second-highest 5v5 CF% (52.29) and the third-highest xG +/- (1.56).

Las Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brad Hunt skates during warm-ups before the start of a preseason hockey game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Las Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

He was certainly no slouch in the NHL this season. When the Knights signed him, he only had a total of 33 NHL games played in his career – so they made a pretty smart bet for a depth defenceman. It was probably a quick decision since Hunt is the owner of the second-highest scoring AHL season among all defencemen that were over-25 – 0.57 5v5 Points/GP in 2016-17 with the Chicago Wolves.

This season is a little bit of a misdemeanor since Hunt only played 23 games for the Wolves that season. Barely scraping by my 20-game minimum, but it can be a big enough sample size for comparison.

Hunt can certainly be an okay predictor for Holl’s potential NHL success. He has always been a scorer in the AHL and has finally found a home in the NHL and be a solid depth option on the blueline.

Tim Heed

Heed is probably the most interesting player that I found within the 858 seasons. He was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks back in 2010, but never signed with them and until 2016, spent his entire career in Sweden. Signed with the San Jose Sharks for the 2016-17 season and played most of it with the San Jose Barracuda. There he was able to score an insane 14 goals and 42 assists in just 55 games for them.

He has less experience in the AHL than Holl, but certainly made the jump to the NHL quickly. Heed played a total of 29 games for the Sharks last season and was able to score three goals and eight assists.

In the end, I don’t believe that this is a likely comparison for Holl. Heed was a European free agent that found extreme success his first season in North America and then found an opportunity in the NHL and took it. He will most likely stay up with the Sharks for the upcoming season in a depth role.

Danny Groulx

Groulx’s seasons were the oldest that I found comparable to Holl. His highest-scoring season was back in 2009-10, where he was able to post 0.49 5v5 Points/GP with the Worchester Sharks. He has never played a single game in the NHL and 2013-14 was his last season spent in North America.

In that 2009-10 season, Groulx was 29-years-old. Much older than Holl is currently, therefore making his high-scoring seasons somewhat a little less significant in comparison. At the same age of Holl, Groulx was playing with the Hamilton Bulldogs and only had sixteen assists in 58 games for the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate.

We can all hope that Holl’s career will not mirror Groulx’s, but there is always that frightening possibility.

Erik Gustafsson

In the chart above, the single season that practically sits exactly in-line with Holl’s season is Erik Gustafsson’s 2017-18 season with the Rockford IceHogs. Again, similar to Brad Hunt, Gustafsson’s AHL season was only 25 games in length. But in those 25 games, he was able to score three goals and fourteen assists for the IceHogs. At even-strength, Gustafsson was able to have a 0.44 Points/GP, just slightly above Holl’s 0.43.

Gustafsson is also the same age as Holl – which makes this comparison that much easier. He was able to play 35 games for the Blackhawks this season, scoring five goals and eleven assists in that short stint. Previously in the 2015-16 season, he was also able to play 41 games for the Blackhawks as well – scoring fourteen assists during that season. Clearly fine-tuning his offensive game throughout his time in the AHL.

He is no doubt in my mind, a capable NHL player. He was averaging 18:33 TOI with the Blackhawks this past season and performed exceptionally overall. Among the Blackhawks defencemen, Gustafsson was 2nd in 5v5 CF% (55.06) and had a stunning 6.38 5v5 CF%rel, good for ninth among all NHL defencemen. All of this considering that he was able to start 56.75% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but that is not uncommon. It’s not hard to say that Gustafsson was able to control shot attempts extremely well with the Blackhawks.

If Justin Holl turns out to be Erik Gustafsson, then the Leafs will have a much easier time limiting opposing shots next season. This can be considered the goal of what a full-time NHL Justin Holl could be.


Conclusion

Comparing even-strength points and age among AHL defencemen will not paint a perfect picture of the potential of Justin Holl. It can only give a glimpse of what similar career paths have turned out to be. From Danny Groulx to Erik Gustafsson, Holl can either never see the NHL or become an underrated depth defenceman that excels at limiting opposing scoring chances.

He will need to work well within Babcock’s system and find some chemistry with one of the left-handed blueliners the Leafs have. He already has experience playing on a pairing with Travis Dermott, so it might all perfectly line-up with the big club in our dreams.

There are so many variables, but seeing how uncommon a season like Holl’s last season is, there is little doubt that he will be given at least a chance to impress at the top level of professional hockey. Like the players that had AHL seasons similar to his, Holl will either look like an NHL regular or never be seen again – only time will tell.

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