Justin Holl has basically made a living off of proving people wrong so far in his NHL career. After being drafted by the Blackhawks in 2010, he never received a contract and suddenly his NHL dreams were all but done. But, he ended up signing an AHL deal with the Toronto Marlies, and we all know the rest of the story from there.
But, Holl still had one more obstacle in his way to make the NHL: Mike Babcock. After Holl cracked the roster in 2018-19, he played all of 11 games for the Leafs that year, basically getting no shot from the Leafs head coach. 2019-20 saw him get a bit more game time, mostly due to injuries, but it was still in a limited role with minimal ice time. It wasn’t until Babcock was fired and his former coach with the Marlies Sheldon Keefe took over that Holl really got a chance to show everyone what he was capable of.
And boy did he ever. Not only did Holl prove himself to be an everyday NHL defenseman, he showed that he can handle tough minutes in a shutdown role with Jake Muzzin, and turned into that shutdown right shot defenseman that we’ve been looking for for over a decade. And it’s not just offense that he’s good at, as he also got 18 points in 68 games, all helping to get a three year, $2 million contract extension on New Year’s Eve.
A big part of what makes Holl an effective shutdown defenseman is his strong possession ability. While his ability to prevent scoring chances isn’t the best, he more than makes up for it with his strong ability to drive offense. His individual goal scoring ability isn’t quite there, but he’s a solid playmaker from the point. His weakest trait is his responsibility, as he gives the puck away a lot in the defensive zone, and takes a lot of penalties, but part of that probably comes with him still getting used to playing against top competition. At the very least, he’s good at takeaways to make up for it.
Now, when you isolate his numbers from factors such as the tough minutes he plays (and on the opposite end, how he mostly plays with Jake Muzzin), you can see that he’s a pretty good defenseman on both ends of the ice. The only thing he struggles with his creating actual goals, but Holl was never on the team because of his offensive abilities (not to say that they aren’t there though).
However, part of that offensive “inability” might just be luck driven. As far as his own abilities to get the puck up the ice, Holl is really good in just about every facet shown here. He’s capable of driving offensive production, and excellent at successfully getting the puck into the zone both through passing and carrying the puck (and doing it frequently). His weakest skill is getting the puck out of the zone, but that’s mostly due to him actually executing this play at about a league average rate. Once he actually does it, he’s really good at that too.
Holl isn’t exactly flashy enough to have a highlight reel montage, but this game might be the closest thing he has to one, as this game was where everyone finally realized he was a shutdown defenseman, holding McDavid and Draisaitl off the scoresheet at even strength, as well as a 38.46 and 35.14 CF% and 27.74 and 24.15 xGF%.
Part of what makes Holl an effective shutdown defenseman is his ability to read plays well, and his gap control, allowing him to make smart players in high pressured situations.
Justin Holl with a really nice defensive play on Nikita Gusev.
– Sticks with Gusev in a mini-race, keeps a good gap then takes the body to shut him down. pic.twitter.com/slcrBKpk1Q
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) January 15, 2020
He’s also very good at using his body as a tool when defending, creating pressure, preventing players from getting inside advantages on the puck, and allowing him to get to the puck first, like below.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) March 4, 2020
Offensively, he’s not afraid to take chances and jump up on the rush to try and create a goal. It shows that he could eventually get more production out of it in the future.
Both Muzzin and Holl jump up into the play, and Tavares scores on Nylander’s rebound: pic.twitter.com/JtLZ8SPhc3
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 6, 2020
We’ve also seen that Holl seems to be a good fit in the locker room, even going so far as to host the Leaf to Leaf videos during quarantine, keeping good conversations with all of the players.
Surprisingly, Holl played in both games against the Blue Jackets this season, even though both were played under Mike Babcock. He wasn’t the best in the first game paired with Rasmus Sandin, but had a much stronger second game paired with Martin Marincin. However, they have yet to play the Blue Jackets since he took on a shutdown role.
So, we don’t exactly know how Holl will perform against Columbus, and until line rushes happen this week, we won’t even know what will be their top line. That said, the Blue Jackets don’t exactly boast a high end forward group, so Muzzin and Holl will probably be facing less of a challenge than say, Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak. We also don’t even know what the pairings for the Leafs will be, or if Holl and Muzzin will even be together.
But, I’d imagine that regardless of the role, Holl will probably be able to handle himself and be an effective defensemen for the Leafs, and help keep whoever his consistent opponent is at bay.
Not to put a ton of pressure on the guy, but Holl’s performance may be key for the Leafs to go on a deep run this season. This is the first time our shutdown pair will actually have a defensively capable defenseman on the right side (the last couple years it’s been Hainsey and Zaitsev), so if we have a pair that can actually keep the opponents top players at bay, the Leafs will have a much better chance of beating a Cup contender like Boston or Tampa.
The Leafs blueline isn’t amazing by any means, but it’s far more competent than most people realize, and a competent defense mixed with a dominant offense could mean a deep run for the Leafs. Holl and Muzzin are the key to that competence on the shutdown pair, and based on the ability of both of them, I have full faith in them being able to pull that off.