Predators Should Target Maple Leafs’ Justin Holl Ahead of Trade Deadline

The Nashville Predators are playing well enough to earn a spot in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. What remains up in the air is if they’ll represent the Western Conference as a top-three team from the Central Division or one of the two wild cards. The concern when considering how far they’ll go revolves around the few areas in the Predators’ game that require immediate attention. Details in their structure could ultimately wreak havoc on their chances of doing anything in the postseason. A penalty kill that currently sits 16th in the NHL is asking for trouble, especially given the team’s inability to stay out of the box. Penalty troubles have plagued the team all season long, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. That’s where the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Justin Holl comes in.

According to The Fourth Period, Maple Leafs’ general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas is exploring the trade market regarding two of his defensemen, Holl and Travis Dermott. With the former making $2 million this year and next, and the latter set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of this season while making $1.5 million, the expectation is the team will be looking to clear out salary. Going into next season with under $7 million in cap space and a bunch of restricted free agents (RFA) to sign in the offseason, including blue liners Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, they’ll need to move money out soon. There’s no better time than the trade deadline, which is coming fast.

Related: Maple Leafs Have Questions to Answer With Justin Holl

There are a few reasons why Predators’ GM David Poile should consider a player of Holl’s calibre. Let’s take a look at what they can do with him in their lineup, what they can send to Toronto in return, and what the future could hold for Holl and the Predators after this season.

Holl Demonstrates Good Penalty Kill Statistics

The two major areas of concern for the Predators happen to be two of Holl’s best values as a defenseman. On a Toronto team that ranks fifth in the league in terms of killing penalties, he’s the second-most utilized defenseman in that type of situation. Holl is averaging 2:34 of penalty kill ice time per game, behind only his defensive partner Jake Muzzin. This season, he’s been relied upon for 53.8 percent of Toronto’s total shorthanded minutes, and the coaching staff continues to play him an average of 20:37 per game. Expect those numbers to rise in the absence of Muzzin.

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

In 48 games played this season, he’s accumulated just 25 penalty minutes, which would make him the sixth-most penalized defenseman on the Predators. An important feature to have in his case as he plays a physical game and he’s shown the ability to remain on the right side of the law. If it weren’t for Matt Borowiecki’s 143 hits in 42 games this season, Holl’s 87 would put him at the top of Nashville’s list of defensemen who lay the body. Head coach John Hynes loves his teams to play hard, and paired with the fact that Holl plays a physically-demanding game while staying out of the box and capable of killing penalties, he’d fit right in on the second pairing. Ironically enough, his game is quite similar to Mattias Ekholm, who could be a suitable partner for him. Their projection this season showcases quite a few similarities.

Ekholm (55 games played)
Penalty Minutes26.0
Penalty Minutes Per Game0:28
Penalty Minutes per Time on Ice2.0
Player’s % of Team’s Shorthanded Time, per Game58.6
Power Play Goals Against per 60 Minutes6.56
Shorthanded Shots per 600.7
Shorthanded Individual SAT For per 60 Minutes2.3
Defensive Zone Start % (All Situations)63.7
Holl (48 games played)
Penalty Minutes25.0
Penalty Minutes Per Game0:31
Penalty Minutes per Time on Ice2.5
Player’s % of Team’s Shorthanded Time, per Game53.8
Power Play Goals Against per 60 Minutes5.36
Shorthanded Shots per 600.5
Shorthanded Individual SAT For per 60 Minutes0.5
Defensive Zone Start % (All Situations) 63.3

As you can see, the two are eerily close in several statistical categories involving taking personal penalties and their efforts while shorthanded. The minor discrepancies, such as Ekholm’s percentage of his team’s shorthanded time being a few points above Holl’s, can be attributed to the sheer amount of penalties the Predators take. The same can be said for Holl’s 0.5 shorthanded shots against per 60, playing for the league’s fifth-best penalty kill, or that he’s played seven fewer games this season. That said, the two still bring forward some strikingly similar stat lines, and their style of play could complement one another.

Both Ekholm and Holl show below-average advanced metrics when it comes to puck possession, but that’s a given when you start shifts in the defensive zone more than 60 percent of the time. While Ekholm has amassed 65 hits and 46 blocks in 55 games, Holl currently has 87 hits and 74 blocks. With his defensive abilities complementing Ekholm’s style of play and ability to carry the puck, the two can mask each other’s deficiencies and create a second pairing that can intimidate the opposition in their zone while moving the play up the ice quickly. It almost seems like a match too good to be true. His 20:37 average ice time would make him the fourth-most utilized player on the Predators, creating the possibility of spreading out the minutes more evenly and conserving the likes of Ekholm and Roman Josi throughout a full game.

The Cost To Acquire Holl

The benefit of acquiring someone like Holl from a team like the Maple Leafs is that Poile has some leverage. Dubas wants to move some of his contracts out, with Sandin, Liljegren, Pierre Engvall, and Ondrej Kase coming off the books after this season and becoming RFAs. Paired with Morgan Rielly‘s extension, which kicks in next season with a raise from $5 million to $7.5 million and the picture becomes more clear on how desperate it may feel to save some money. With the signing of cheap deals like the recent extensions for Kyle Clifford and Carl Dahlström, there comes an opportunity to continue reducing their cap and gaining some flexibility for next season.

Ben Harpur Nashville Predators
Ben Harpur, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Poile could offer defenseman Ben Harpur back to the team that traded him two years ago, and the deal itself would already save Toronto $1.2 million this year and the entirety of Holl’s $2 million next year. If a one-for-one trade isn’t enough, Poile could add on a mid-round pick to sweeten the offer, and it’s likely enough to be considered. Dubas gets some cap room and a draft pick for a player he can replace with some young blood itching to play, and also gains a serviceable defenseman for the remainder of the season. Harpur is also three years younger and comes off the books after this season, making it a clean break from Holl’s contract and a draft pick to show for it. He also gets a better opportunity of earning some ice time, as he’s appeared in just 16 games this season, ultimately becoming the team’s seventh defenseman.

Related: Insider Says Maple Leafs Seriously Mismanaging Muzzin LTIR Situation

It’s the kind of hockey deal that allows both teams to get something they need. For Hynes, he now has three pairings that can be relied upon, two penalty-killing units that can improve on their 16th-place ranking, all while avoiding any sacrifice of the physical play he enjoys deploying. Holl won’t have to adapt too much to a different role, as the only changes he’ll have to face are the conference he plays in and the partner he’s skating alongside. Toronto has struggled as of late, and the blending of different defensive duos has yielded minimal results, so perhaps some new blood can benefit them in the short term.

Holl With Nashville Next Season

In a full 82-game season, Holl could be a viable option long-term if he clicks well with Ekholm on the second pairing. If not, Hynes and his coaching staff have options for a few different tandems. On paper, the start of the season could look a little something like this.

Pairing #1Roman JosiDante Fabbro
Pairing #2Matthias EkholmJustin Holl
Pairing #3Matt BorowieckiAlexandre Carrier

On the sidelines remain Philippe Myers and Matt Benning, should they choose to re-sign him, and Matt Tennyson has shown glimpses of being a good fit on the third pairing as well. It all lies on the first two pairings to carry the majority of the load, and the four names involved in this situation are all capable of logging heavy minutes and in different situations. In Holl’s case, he has one year remaining and 82 games to prove his worth with a Nashville team that should suit his abilities nicely. Worst case scenario, the two sides part ways at the end of the 2022-23 season and invest the $2 million into another hole.

Ironically, this wouldn’t be the first time the Predators end up trading a defenseman to Toronto that they received from them in a previous year. Back in 2011, Nashville dealt Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney. Four years later, they re-acquired Franson in a deal that included Mike Santorelli in exchange for Toronto receiving Olli Jokinen, Brendan Leipsic, and a 2015 first-round pick. The Predators were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that year, so Poile and company will hope for a better outcome this time around if they can pick up Holl by the trade deadline. As for Dubas, it isn’t as important what he gets in return from Nashville compared to what he’ll get from expelling Holl’s contract off the books.

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