Maple Leafs Have Questions to Answer With Justin Holl

Toronto Maple Leafs’ defender Justin Holl has not had the type of season general manager Kyle Dubas expected when he went the route of protecting four forwards and four defensemen, instead of protecting seven forwards and three defensemen for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. He left unprotected newly-acquired Jared McCann (Seattle’s selection) and forward Alex Kerfoot, specifically to protect Holl.  

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Holl has struggled this season and even found himself a healthy scratch for five games back in early November. This sitting led fans and media alike to throw out the question: “What’s wrong with Justin Holl?”  

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There are a number of theories; and, in this post, we’ll look at three of them to see if there’s any basis for them. However, before we look at those three theories, let’s take a look at Holl’s career and his long road to the NHL.

Justin Holl’s Career in a Nutshell

Holl was drafted in the second round (54th overall) way back in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks. He played the next four seasons for the University of Minnesota, then spent the majority of the 2014-15 season with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL league. 

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Holl did play two games for the Rockford Icedogs of the AHL at the end of the 2014-15 season. However, during that time he never signed an NHL contract with the Blackhawks.

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Kyle Dubas, the general manager of the Toronto Marlies at the time, signed Holl to an AHL contract prior to the start of the 2015 season. Dubas followed that signing by inking Holl to two-way contracts in 2016 and 2017. He next signed Holl to a two-year, one-way deal in 2018. When that contract expired, Dubas signed Holl to his present two-year, $2 million-a-season contract.

Between 2015 and 2018, Holl played a total of 152 regular-season games and 46 playoff games for the Marlies. During that span, he scored 20 goals and had 68 regular-season points, plus four goals and 16 points in the playoffs. Holl played a key role in anchoring the defense in the Marlies Calder Cup Championship in 2018. He also played two games for the Maple Leafs that season, scoring a goal in each of those two games. 

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Then came the difficult 2018-19 season where Justin Holl spent 71 of 82 games in the Maple Leafs’ press box. It appeared that whatever then-coach Mike Babcock saw in Holl’s game, he obviously felt 22-year-old Travis Dermott was a better option.

Travis Dermott Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott (AP Photo/John Locher)

Finally, Holl became a regular in the NHL in the fall of 2019, nine years after being drafted. At the start of that season, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev had departed and Holl stepped in. By that time, he was the ripe old age of 27.  

Theory One: Justin Holl Peaked Last Season

The first theory is that Holl, who’ll be 30 on January 30, simply peaked last season and has started the downward side of his career. If we look at his five-on-five statistics per 60 minutes played for the past three seasons from naturalstattrick we see the following:

2019-20 Season
Actual Goals For:2.61
Actual Goals Against: 2.44
Difference:+.17
Expected Goals For:   2.60
Expected Goals Against:  2.30
Difference:  +.30
2020-21 Season
Actual Goals For:2.98
Actual Goals Against: 2.54
Difference:+.44
Expected Goals For:   2.53
Expected Goals Against:  2.11
Difference:  +.42
2021-22 Season
Actual Goals For:2.53
Actual Goals Against: 2.77
Difference:-.24
Expected Goals For:   2.72
Expected Goals Against:  2.49
Difference:  +.23

Studying these analytics shows that Holl’s Actual Goals For and Against went from a +0.17 in 2019-20 up to +0.44 in 2020-21, then down to -0.24 this season.

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In Expected Goals For and Against he’s been a positive every season, going from +0.30 to 0.42 to 0.23, but the pattern is the same in both Actual and Expected Goals, up from 2019-20 to 2020-21, then down in 2021-22.

The statistics support the possibility that Holl might have peaked in 2020-21 and has started the downward slope of his career. 

Theory Two: Justin Holl’s Advancement and Decline Is Tied to Jake Muzzin

Since Jake Muzzin joined the Maple Leafs in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in January 2019 until the end of the 2020-21 season, statistically he’s been the team’s best all-around defenseman. During that time, Morgan Rielly’s been regarded as the Maple Leafs #1 defenseman and has been their #1 offensive threat from the defense; however, Muzzin’s been superior defensively as the foundation of the team’s defense. 

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, for whatever reason – health, age, or just a bad season – Muzzin has struggled. Until this season, Muzzin’s been considered to be the guy who’s carried the Muzzin/Holl pairing.  

Studying the same numbers for Muzzin that we did for Holl, we see the following:

2019-20 Season
Actual Goals For:3.29
Actual Goals Against: 3.04
Difference:+.25
Expected Goals For:   2.57
Expected Goals Against:  2.39
Difference:  +.18
2020-21 Season
Actual Goals For:3.32
Actual Goals Against: 2.17
Difference:+1.15
Expected Goals For:   2.63
Expected Goals Against:  2.01
Difference:  +.62
2021-22 Season
Actual Goals For:2.71
Actual Goals Against: 3.10
Difference:-.39
Expected Goals For:   2.73
Expected Goals Against:  2.45
Difference:  +.28

Muzzin’s numbers show that Muzzin had similar Goals and Expected Goals than Holl did in 2019-20. In 2020-21 Muzzin had a phenomenal year in Goals For and Against with a positive difference of 1.15, and in Expected Goals with a positive 0.62 difference.  

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This season, Muzzin has regressed quite a bit in Actual Goals For and Against, going from a positive 1.15 to a negative 0.39, a fall of more than 1.5 goals per 60 minutes played. Similar to Holl, he’s also seen a decline in his Expected Goals For and Against, but is still positive at +0.28.

It’s safe to say that a correlation exists between the rise and fall of Muzzin’s numbers and the rise and fall of Holl’s.

A Third Possibility: Holl Is Simply in a Slump

Even the best players go through good and bad stretches during their careers. For some players, those stretches can last weeks, months, or even whole seasons. Hockey careers have ups and downs. 

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Although Holl has played hockey for most of his life, it hasn’t been at the NHL level. Despite his age, he only has 178 games of experience at the NHL level. In some ways, he’s still learning how to play at this level. Given time, Holl could work himself out of whatever’s ailing him on the ice.

What Does the Maple Leafs Organization Do with Justin Holl Now?

So, what’s wrong with Holl?  Is it the natural progression and regression of his abilities, the influence of Muzzin’s play, or just simply a slump? It could be a bit of all three. The entire Holl situation leaves the Maple Leafs with at least three questions: First, which of the three reasons (or more) for Holl’s decline are accurate? Second, what should the organization do with Holl? And, third, is Holl’s Maple Leafs’ career coming to an end?

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Perhaps the most important question is whether Dubas feels the organization needs to address Holl’s tenure with the team now; or, do they just give it time to work itself out? The fact is that Holl came back from the NHL’s Covid protocol and played a strong game against the Anaheim Ducks. So, he still can play.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]