Justin Holl is a true feather in the cap of the Leafs organization when it comes to finding talent, developing players, and helping them reach their top potential. After being plucked from Chicago’s ECHL affiliate, the former 2nd round pick put in three years of solid work with the Marlies, and found his way to the NHL.
Holl didn’t seem to be a favourite of Mike Babcock, which is somewhat amusing given that we now know that Holl will do anything and everything asked of him, and after a frustrating long journey to the NHL, Holl had a solid season for the Leafs and earned himself a tidy little 3 year contract paying him $2M a season.
Through injuries and a complete lack of right shot defensemen last season, Holl found his way onto the second pairing for the Leafs, and developed a level of familiarity with Jake Muzzin, and that leads us to Holl’s number.
Justin Holl’s number is 4. The biggest question for him in 2021 is whether he can hold on to his spot in the Leafs top four.
Jumping from a situation where Holl was healthy scratched in all but 11 games to a situation where he was playing over 21 minutes a night towards the end of the season, and missed only two games (to Babcock’s lack of eye for talent) was a big shift. Objectively, Holl did very well with the challenge. Justin finished the year with positive differentials on expected goals, shot attempts, and goals. He was playing in a penalty killing role, and averaging over a hit and blocked shot per game.
It’s important to note that most of Holl’s success came playing with Jake Muzzin, who is talented enough to be elevating his partner, and Holl’s performance away from Muzzin took a significant dive, with his Goals For% dropping from 54% to 45%, and his expected goals for% dropping from 56% to 45%. Muzzin was the stronger part of this arrangement, but that’s not to say that Muzzin wasn’t also a fan of this pairing, as his numbers were also significantly lower away from Holl.
Heading into next season it makes sense to keep the shutdown pairing that clicked together as a unit, despite the fact that Brodie with Muzzin has a certain appeal, while Holl might add additional defensive zone sense to the Rielly pairing. If that those were the only options on the table, it would seem easy to assume that Holl would be the 4D again this season.
Instead things are complicated somewhat by the fact that Travis Dermott continues to show promise, and could see time on the right side of the blueline in training camp. There’s also the matter of Mikko Lehtonen is a point per game player in the KHL and could warrant a top four job, and he would certainly require a partner like Muzzin to keep him tethered to his defensive role. There’s also the matter of up and comers like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren who will need to be accounted for and there’s little doubt they’ll try somewhere down the line to grab Holl’s job as well.
It probably goes without saying this isn’t something that can be decided without a training camp and might be an ongoing debate into the regular season.
Holl had some of his shine come off him towards the end of the season and in the return to play series against Columbus. He looked good enough when used in the complimentary position to Muzzin, but as soon as Muzzin was hurt he couldn’t handle the same workload and away from Muzzin, Holl would probably be a fourth defenseman at best, and instead a bottom pairing defenseman that you can feel really comfortable about.
Holl going up against the NHL’s best never looked great, but matching to middle six forwards, Justin is capable. Perhaps in 2021 we see him and another RD used more situationally with Muzzin. The proposed 7D approach that Dubas and Keefe are considering lends itself to that. Holl, Lehtonen, Dermott, and Bogosian may see themselves used much more situationally with the Leafs top three defensemen, and maybe the lesson is not to get hung up on pairings anymore.
The one thing I would count on however, is that when the Leafs have the lead in a close game we’ll still see a ton of Muzzin and Holl on the ice together.