After struggling to find consistent playing time with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past couple of seasons, it appears defenseman Justin Holl has solidified himself into a top-six role on the back end. He was often a healthy scratch last season under coach Mike Babcock, only starting 11 regular season games, with no taste of the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2019-20, and Holl has found himself matched up with Jake Muzzin on the Maple Leafs’ second defensive unit. Dressing in 30 of 32 regular season games so far, Holl currently leads the Maple Leafs with a plus-10 rating. He has proven to be an effective shutdown defenseman, and recently chipped in with his first multi-point performance vs. the Canucks on Dec. 10.
Increased Responsibility Under Keefe
In four straight games under Sheldon Keefe, Holl has logged at least 18 minutes of ice time. He has been a main benefactor of the coaching change that transpired on Nov. 20, as his former bench boss Keefe, was instrumental in his success with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. James Mirtle outlined how Holl’s playing time in five-on-five situations has been on the steady incline since Keefe’s tenure with the team.
Averaging just above three minutes more during five-on-five play, it is evident that Keefe has plenty of trust in Holl’s capabilities. He was a key member of the 2018 Calder Cup-winning Marlies team, and was leaned on heavily by Keefe during their run. He was quick to point out how Keefe has a great relationship with his players and said it was a “surprisingly seamless transition” having his former coach behind the Leafs’ bench.
Out of all the defensemen on the Maple Leafs, Holl’s usage has risen the most in all situations. He has seen around a 20 percent increase in ice time under Keefe. Known as a strong skater who is an underrated puck-mover, the immediate results have been encouraging. Holl leads all defensemen in five-on-five scoring since the coaching change. Along with Travis Dermott, the two former Marlies will be key cogs on the Maple Leafs’ blue line going forward.
It would make plenty of sense for general manager Kyle Dubas to lock up Holl with a cap-friendly contract at some point this season. He is in his second year of a two-year, $1.35-million contract. As Damien Cox points out, it could end up being a steal in the long-run.
If the Maple Leafs want to keep their competitive window open with limited cap-space, they are going to have to be savvy with their signings. Inking Holl to a long-term deal that is team-friendly could pay huge dividends in the future, especially if his play keeps trending up.
Still Plenty of Work to Do
While the Maple Leafs are showing plenty of positive strides under their new bench boss, there remains plenty of work to do. This was particularly evident in their Dec. 10 matchup vs. the Canucks. The growing pains associated with learning a new system were evident throughout the game, as the Canucks had numerous odd-man rushes – goalie Frederik Andersen had to bail the defence out on several instances. Forward Brock Boeser had two clear-cut breakaways that he failed to capitalize on.
The Maple Leafs will have to limit these defensive breakdowns if they want to make a serious run at being a true contender this season. Andersen won’t be able to bail them out like he has lately, and there is still no solution for their backup goalie issues. The Maple Leafs are currently eighth in the league in high-danger scoring chances against with 275, and tied for first in high danger goals against with 46.
Defenseman Morgan Rielly was frank when being asked about the challenges associated with learning a new system. When asked how comfortable the team is under Keefe, he replied: “you just gotta stick with it, and keep working and pay attention during meetings and make sure that the group’s grasping it and I think we’re getting there”. We are seeing the Maple Leafs’ defence pinch in and join the play much more often under Keefe, which is awesome news for offensively minded d-men in Rielly and Tyson Barrie, but protecting their own end must remain priority number one.