Maple Leafs’ Expansion Draft Decisions Show Dubas’ Faith in Holl

What do you get when you take a broken fanbase and combine it with a trade? The answer is over 72 hours of absolute mayhem on social media.

I’m describing the scene after the Toronto Maple Leafs traded forward prospect Filip Hallander and a seventh-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Jared McCann. For the first 24 hours after the trade happened, everybody was fired up over the idea of McCann playing for the Leafs next season. Thus, everybody expected the Leafs to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie. Hell, I even wrote an article on it.

A Wild Three Days in Leaf Land

General manager Kyle Dubas shocked the world the following morning when the Maple Leafs opted to protect eight skaters and one goalie versus the 7-3-1 format. McCann was not one of those skaters. Instead, the Leafs protected a fourth defenseman in Justin Holl and left a crop of McCann, Alex Kerfoot, and Travis Dermott exposed for Seattle to pick from.

For the next three days, Leafs fans considered all sorts of situations in an effort to convince themselves that Seattle had some sort of side deal to take Kerfoot instead. There was an initial report from Jonas Siegel of The Athletic indicating that there may be a side deal for Seattle to take Kerfoot (from “SIEGEL: Jared McCann gives the Maple Leafs a much-needed win to start the offseason, 7/17/21, TheAthleticNHL), but it was quickly debunked the next day.

Then, the day before the Expansion Draft, a video was leaked of a rehearsal where former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes was at Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle practicing the Leafs’ pick. In the video, the owner of the Fish Market caught a flying fish and announced Kerfoot’s name, leading fans to believe somebody had leaked the Leafs’ pick.

This video kept fans busy for the next 24 hours, but eventually, it was announced that Seattle would indeed be selecting McCann. Leafs fans weren’t too happy with the outcome, having felt as though Dubas made a mistake trading a prospect for a good young player, only to let him go instead of just exposing one of Holl or Dermott.

I was in this same boat too. Part of the reason for that, I feel, is that after such a bitter ending to the 2020-21 season, Leafs fans have been clamoring for a change of some sort. And with this being the first notable trade of the offseason, fans did a deep dive into McCann’s highlights and advanced stats, only to have him put on a Kraken jersey no more than four days later. Sort of like watching your parents buy one of your best friends a shiny new toy for his birthday.

But after delving into the situation a little bit further, I’m going to attempt to shine some light on why Dubas decided to protect Holl in favor of McCann. We won’t know if it was the right call until McCann gets a few games in with Seattle, but at the very least, we can take a look at the pros and cons.

Holl’s Path to the NHL

Holl is one of the coolest stories on the Maple Leafs as it stands. A second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, Holl never made it past the AHL in the Hawks’ organization. He signed an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies in 2015 after spending the previous season playing in the ECHL with the Indy Fuel.

Three seasons in the AHL later, Holl finally secured a roster spot with the Maple Leafs in 2018-19. Yet, for whatever reason, he couldn’t get into then-head coach Mike Babcock’s good books and only dressed for 11 games despite being on the roster all season and not spending a single game in the AHL.

Holl became a regular in 2019-20, and he’s blossomed into a top-four right-handed defenseman only five years removed from playing in the ECHL. The 29-year-old also put together a career year offensively in 2020-21, notching 20 points in 55 games for the Leafs.

Why Dubas Protected Holl

None of this is the reason Dubas wanted to hold onto Holl. Of course, seeing your AHL signing grow into a top-four defenseman would add an emotional aspect to it and make it harder to move on from, but that likely didn’t play into the decision to protect him or at least play a big factor.

The reality is, the Leafs aren’t sure if they’re going to be bringing back pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Zach Bogosian yet. And, hypothetically, if Bogosian were to leave and Seattle were to select Holl, the Leafs would be left with T.J. Brodie as their only defenseman on the right side.

And for a team like the Maple Leafs, who are always in a bit of a cap-crunched situation, having a player who can do what Holl does at his cap hit of $2 million annually is absolutely massive for them. Especially when you consider that Holl is signed through the 2022-23 season, having him holding down the fort for the next two years isn’t something Dubas and company want to gamble losing.

And like I said, while the idea of having a former Soo Greyhound and a young, flashy player like McCann would have been great to see, it’s not like the Leafs hurt their roster by losing him. In the long run, all they lost to the Expansion Draft was Hallander. If it came down to keeping Kerfoot or McCann, I’d take McCann every day. But sometimes it’s worth remembering that this season was the first in the last ten years at least that this team didn’t have a flawed defense. And Holl was a big part of that.

The Risk of Protecting Holl

The only issue I see with putting this much stock into Holl is that, while he did have a successful season with the Leafs, much of this was because he benefited from playing alongside Jake Muzzin. The two were a pairing essentially since the season got underway and were only broken up when injuries came into play.

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While the Morgan Rielly/Brodie pairing got most of the work against other teams’ top guns, Muzzin and Holl were a great second pairing. They managed a 53.4 Corsi for percentage (CF%) against mid-tier talent and a 54.8 CF% against other teams’ third and fourth lines.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The problem is, Holl was not the same player when he wasn’t playing with Muzzin. When facing mid-level talent, Holl’s Corsi dropped from 53.4% to a whopping 45.0%. And it was more or less the same story when facing low-level talent, going from 54.8% to only 46.3%. While there weren’t too many situations that saw Holl playing without Muzzin, it wasn’t pretty unless the two played together.

To add to this skepticism, Muzzin plays a hard-hitting style of game, and, as we’ve seen in the past, he’s missed some time with injuries. So at this point, the question becomes whether or not you would feel satisfied giving up McCann to protect a defenseman who’s only really as effective as he is when he’s playing with Muzzin. And you’d just have to hope Muzzin stays healthy.

Overview

In the end, at the very least, I think fans should be able to understand why Dubas protected the players the way he did. Had McCann spent this season with the Leafs, it might be a different story, but they essentially lost a mid-grade prospect in Hallander and a conditional seventh-round pick to keep their $2 million top-four defenseman.

Whether or not this ends up being the right call won’t be known until McCann gets some games in with Seattle and we see how Holl fares this year. But losing Holl would have added another question mark to a tricky offseason, and while fans may have gotten attached to McCann a little too quickly (myself included), there’s certainly an argument to be made that this was the right move to make.


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