When was the last time you heard Leafs news that wasn’t an injury, or Martin Marincin being recalled or loaned?
At last, there is decidedly good news on the transaction front. The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed Justin Holl to a three-year contract extension, with a cap hit of $2,000,000 per season. Holl’s journey to the NHL has been long and winding, but the mutual trust between him and Kyle Dubas has landed him a home on the Toronto blue line for years to come.
Holl Lot of Patience
Some may not know that Justin Holl was a second-round pick all the way back in 2010. However, the team that drafted him, the Chicago Blackhawks, did not sign Holl to an Entry-Level Contract after he left the NCAA. Instead, they gave him an AHL deal that saw him spend 66 games in the ECHL. That was enough to be exposed to rookie Assistant General Manager Kyle Dubas all the way back in 2015, and before long he was a Marlie, signing an AHL contract with Toronto.
Dubas immediately saw the potential in the 24-year-old free agent, and after Holl’s first full season in the AHL, he signed a one-year ELC. It’s not often that a 24-year-old with no NHL contract history amounts to much at the NHL level, but the Leafs were, and continue to be, in search of right-handed defencemen.
By the time he signed his second contract, Holl had cemented himself as a go-to guy on the Marlies blueline. In the 2017-18 season the Leafs defence had sustained multiple injuries, and seven years after being drafted he got his first shot in the NHL. It went in.
By the time Holl’s emergency recall was through, he had two goals in two games, a stat line many used to humorously insinuate his readiness for a full-time NHL role. Perhaps this inspired confidence in Holl; perhaps not. But something indeed inspired him.
When he returned to the Marlies, Holl dominated top pairing minutes en route to a Calder Cup Championship.
For many players on that Marlies team, for many different reasons, the championship was a gleeful departure, a final goodbye to the AHL. Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson had already cemented themselves as NHL regulars; Marlies captain Ben Smith signed a three-year deal in Germany. But there was some uncertainty for Holl. His contract was up, he was 26 years old, and he had only seen two career NHL games. Very few people expected that sitting there, taking a picture with the Calder Cup, would be Justin Holl’s last time on AHL ice.
Kyle Dubas was one of those people. Within two months of being appointed GM, he had qualified Holl, and then signed him to a two-year extension. It was Holl’s first one-way deal, meaning he was guaranteed an NHL salary regardless of where he played. Still, it was for league minimum in each of those years, averaging out to $675,000.
In 2018-19 Holl spent the full year on the Leafs roster, but only suited up for 11 games. It was not the type of start anyone would want to their NHL career, but a strong relationship with the GM kept him eager for the next opportunity. This season that opportunity arose, and Holl’s cap hit (which is less than league minimum) fit perfectly on the roster. Poor starts from Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci gave way to more minutes for Holl, which in hindsight seems long overdue. Shortly after, a coaching change reunited Holl with Sheldon Keefe, who had relied on him during their Calder run.
In 2019-20 Holl has recorded 11 points in 38 games, and improved his relative possession metrics despite a larger sample size with more defensive zone starts. He is above 53% in both Corsi and Fenwick, with a reasonable 101.4 PDO, all at even strength.
Nearly a decade after being drafted, the 6’4″ RHD’s determination, perseverance, and willingness to learn has paid off, nearly tripling his salary.
In the Leafs current cap situation, tripling the salary of any player seems dangerously irresponsible. However, it is difficult to find anyone more deserving of such a raise, especially in a position of need. As of now, Holl is the only defenceman on the roster signed into 2022-23, but help is on the way.
Holl’s new contract includes a 10-team no-trade list, a small price to pay for the loyalty Holl has reciprocated with the Leafs organization. It may be difficult to believe that Kyle Dubas imagined Holl would ever end up in this position, but consider that in his five years in the Leafs organization Holl has never been placed on waivers.
This is a player that Dubas plucked out of the ECHL at 23 years old, and shown complete confidence in every step of the way.
Now $2 million is far from pocket change for the Leafs, but in the current season, it would leave Holl tied for the honours of the NHL’s 133rd highest paid defencemen. That means each team pays, on average, 4.3 defencemen more than the Leafs will be paying Holl. That’s perfectly acceptable, considering he is being played like a 4/5 defenceman, but even better when the entire league has a deficit of right-shot D.
Holl’s contract will expire when he is 31, a point when players typically begin to drop off in terms of production. His 6’4″ frame provides good contrast to the smaller prospects the Leafs have in the pipeline. The flat $2 million pay in each year, while noteworthy, is neither good nor bad.
What’s most exciting about all this is the term, as each year the contract becomes more valuable for the Leafs as the cap continues to rise. There is a lot to happen before the expiration of the deal, including a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and Expansion Draft, but you could reasonably forecast the upper limit to be nearing $90 million in the final year of his deal.
Even if Holl falls short of becoming a true top-four defenceman, he can be everything that people wanted Nikita Zaitsev to be, for less than half the cost.
Speaking of the Seattle Expansion, this contract makes Holl the second defenceman signed (and eligible) for the 2021 Expansion Draft. Similarly to the last iteration, teams can only protect three defencemen. Morgan Rielly is the obvious first choice, and pending an extension, Dermott is the second. It is possible that the Leafs extend one of Barrie or Jake Muzzin, but for the time being, Holl seems destined for the third and final protection slot for defence.
Seeing that Dubas has been unwilling to expose Holl to waivers in the past, there is reason to believe he intends to protect Holl for the Expansion draft. Keep in mind that both Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin will be exempt from the draft, as they had not completed a “professional season” before this year. With that, the Leafs seem poised to exit the Expansion Draft with a strong defence intact, something many teams are not in a position to do.
If it seems too far away to be relevant, keep in mind that Leafs Assistant GM Laurence Gilman was the one who designed the Vegas Expansion Draft. It is not something that he would let slip out of the minds of Leafs management.
This season will hopefully provide Holl with his first NHL playoff experience. If it is anything like his AHL experience, the new contract will be an afterthought.
As the Leafs roster stands, they have roughly $10m to extend Mikheyev, Engvall, Dermott, and another defenceman for next season. Whether that is Barrie, Muzzin, or someone else, things will be tight once again. That is of course based on an $81.5m cap, any increase in the offseason will go a long way towards improving the roster. Regardless, there remain the pieces of a contender for this year and next.
Following 2020-21 there is much uncertainty all over the roster, but Holl will likely remain as a player you can have confidence in to outperform his contract.