Maple Leafs’ Justin Holl Providing Cheap Insurance on Defense

Twenty-eight-year-old Justin Holl, the most recent graduate of the Toronto Maple Leafs press box, has solidified himself as a regular in the lineup with his consistent work this season.

After playing 11 games last season, Holl is on pace to appear in 78 this season, with his four missing games coming when former coach Mike Babcock scratched him in the early goings of the season.

Like Josh Leivo before him, Holl has done well enough to earn a new contract: a three-year, $6 million deal ($2 million AAV) which a nice step up from his current $675,000 contract and runs through the 2022-23 season. Thankfully, Holl’s contract is with the Leafs.

Holl has great defensive numbers on a team that is (supposedly) plagued with defensive issues, and I’d like to look at the chemistry he has with veteran defenceman Jake Muzzin.

Holl’s Transitional Impacts

When Holl made his debut against the New York Islanders on Jan. 31, 2017, he scored a goal. In fact, many will remember that in the two games he played that season, he scored in each of them.

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The way in which Holl scored his first NHL goal is now part of his standard transition game. He carries the puck from (basically) his own end into the offensive zone, and gets a rush shot on net.

Not all of these plays end with him barrelling towards the net for a shot, but they do help generate offense. In fact, teams that carry the puck into the offensive zone generate about twice as many shot attempts on average. Being able to enter the zone with control is a great skill to have on your back end.

The image below shows Holl’s SKATR profile which outlines how well he ranks against other NHL defencemen in certain categories like expected goals for percent (xGF%), quality of competition, shot generation, etc.

Justin Holl’s SKATR profile, detailing many of his statistics. (Credit: Bill Comeau, Maple Leafs Hotstove)

The numbers represent percentiles, and Holl grades out fairly well in most categories, with the exception of penalty differential, goals, shooting percentage, and offensive zone start percentage.

The Muzzin-Holl Shutdown Pair

Holl has found a home as part of the Leafs’ shutdown pair with Muzzin, spending almost 45% of his even strength time on ice with him. The two work well together, attempting to shut down the opposition’s top lines each night.

Holl’s most memorable game of the season was on Dec. 14, when the Leafs faced off against the Edmonton Oilers. A game that the Leafs won 4-1.

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Holl regularly hit the ice against Connor McDavid, the most dominant offensive player in the NHL, and finished the game with 52.82% share of the expected goals (xGF%). On the other side, McDavid finished with a measly 27.74% share of the expected goals. It was a solid defensive performance for the rookie which helped shut down (one of) the game’s best.

This has been the story with Holl since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the Leafs bench. Since the new coach’s first game, Holl has an on-ice xGF% of 53.59% at 5v5, which ranks second among the team’s regular defencemen, behind Muzzin who has an on-ice xGF% of 55.04%.

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

Ranking these players against others in the league, Holl comes in 38th in xGF% among the 159 defencemen who have played at least 400 minutes since Nov. 20. Muzzin ranks 24th. The top end is mostly dominated by players on very good defensive teams, such as the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, and Vegas Golden Knights.

Holl has also seen his 5v5 ice time jump from 12:19 per game under Babcock to 17:20 per game under Keefe, a sign of Keefe’s confidence in him.

As a pair, Muzzin and Holl have an on-ice xGF% of 55.04%. They have found great chemistry together, and with a Muzzin extension nearly finalized, the two will look to provide stability on the Leafs’ back end for years to come.

Assuming that Muzzin’s extension comes in at the rumoured AAV of $5.5 million, the pairing would then cost $7.5 million per season against the cap; not bad for two players capable of shutting down the game’s best.

Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

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