I remember at the end of January, during the early stretch of the Maple Leafs regular season, seeing a meme about Justin Holl in a reply to the Edmonton Oilers team Twitter account. The Maple Leafs had just beaten the Oilers 4-3 and were off to a blazing 7-2-0 start. The meme made me chuckle, as it read “Thank you for your contribution to Justin Holl’s 2021 Norris Trophy”. Justin Holl had just emerged from the ashes as a top 4 right-handed defenseman for the Maple Leafs, not only providing steady reliability on the back end, but outright winning matchups against the league’s premier players, notably Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that very evening.
The story of Justin Holl’s ascent has been echoed ad nauseam amongst Maple Leafs fans, oftentimes as a jab at Mike Babcock, who famously scratched the Minnesota native for 71 games during the 18-19 campaign. Holl hung around nonetheless the year after, outlasting even Babcock, and eventually finding his way into the Leafs lineup as a regular beside Jake Muzzin for the Maple Leafs in their top four. The 19-20 season was a breakout campaign for Holl in many respects, as he ranked amongst the top half of Toronto defenders by just about every advanced metric.
The shortened 2021 campaign began much the same for Justin Holl, and perhaps even better. With minutes elevated, Holl and Muzzin clicked in a remarkable way, beating up on top competition with strong metrics to back it up. At the end of January, Justin Holl sat tops amongst all Maple Leafs with an xGF% just a shade under 60% through the month of January. It had only been 10 games, and small sample size shenanigans certainly were in play, but there was little doubt that the pair was the top-performing one on the Maple Leafs squad. High praise, and subsequently memes, flowed in response, with people shouting from the rooftops that Justin Holl was the answer to the Maple Leafs prayers for a top pair RHD. Of course, nothing good ever comes for the Maple Leafs without anxious whispers hanging overhead, and as such talk immediately turned to how the team would protect him from the upcoming expansion draft. Oh yeah, that little nugget.
Going into the season, it seemed etched in stone that Just Holl would be the Leafs casualty of the expansion draft, as a ‘good not great’ defenseman that simply sat outside of the must-protect triumvirate of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie. All of the sudden, however, Holl and his contract went from ‘pretty solid’ seemingly to ‘one of the league’s best in the span of a month, and Holl had suddenly become a must-protect from the greedy paws of the expansion Seattle Kraken. The snowball of uneasiness that is Maple Leaf fandom saw concerns subsequently raised about being able to protect the forward core that had been the backbone of the Maple Leafs for the past several seasons. Losing three protection slots by going from 7 to 4 exempt forwards would mean that only Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander would be protected, and other key contributors, notably pending free agent Zach Hyman, would have to be exposed.
Here’s the thing though: Justin Holl has been less than stellar since the calendar turned to February. The cannon that Holl was shot out of has seemingly fizzled in a big way, and it’s not just the recent play of Holl that might be cause for concern.
Since February 1st of this year, a 37-game stretch, Justin Holl has been one of the Maple Leafs’ weakest links on the back end by both the eye test and the advanced numbers. Over that period, Holl has been outpaced by opponents in shot share (48.8%), shot attempt share (48.7%), and has gotten rocked with just 44% of goals when he is on the ice being for the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is the caveat that he has also received a paltry .902 save percentage from his goalies during this same period, but he certainly is not helping the cause with some questionable decision-making.
NHL Video Highlight – Mark Scheifele scores against the Toronto Maple Leafs to make it 2-1. pic.twitter.com/rBtyhmKBqD
— Toronto Maple Leafs Game Bot (@MapleLeafsBot) April 22, 2021
At this point, Holl is dead last amongst Leafs defensemen by expected goals percentage and is dragging his partner down in the process. Jake Muzzin, who Justin Holl has seen the most ice time together with of all teammates, has far stronger numbers away from Holl than when paired with him. The magic of this early season has clearly worn off.
Now, with this said, things are not catastrophic for Holl by any means, and he’s certainly a playable piece moving forward. The Leafs, perhaps, should consider their plans slightly altered for this upcoming summer.
All of this brings me to an article from Frank Seravalli highlighting Canadian team expansion plans that was published on Friday afternoon. Seravalli noted that, based on his intel, the Maple Leafs intended to use the 4F/4D protection scheme in order to protect Justin Holl, with the expectation that Travis Dermott would be the player that the Kraken snatched up. It’s pretty clear, however, that doing so would be a pretty big mistake on the part of Kyle Dubas and Co.
Travis Dermott himself isn’t having the hottest of seasons and certainly hasn’t broken out in a way that fans might have hoped for coming into the season. Despite that, protecting Holl over Dermott, with nearly a five-year difference in age favouring Dermott, seems like poor asset management by the hockey ops folks at MLSE. Not to mention, going with 4F/4D would also leave more effective cogs like Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev, or even Alex Galchenyuk available to be snatched up this coming July. Even though two of those players are pending UFAs, the money that the Seattle Kraken can afford to pay a guy like Zach Hyman is far greater than what the Maple Leafs can, never mind the fact that leaving Hyman unsigned that late into the offseason is a dangerous game to play. Even giving Seattle a shot at paying Hyman $6.5m, which is well out of the Maple Leafs budget, is really tempting fate that he won’t leave for elsewhere.
Leaving Holl exposed and going with 7F/3D as the expansion set up, with the Kraken presumably then taking Holl, would also open up a spot for some of the Maple Leafs youngest defensemen knocking at the door in the minors. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are both ready to step into NHL roles, even if not as top-four defencemen as of yet, and there’s no telling if other youngsters like Mikko Kokkonen or Filip Kral could surprise this coming training camp. One of the silver linings of the expansion draft is precisely that it affords teams the opportunity to see what they’ve got their hands on. Especially in the case of Timothy Liljegren, whose prospect sheen has begun to rust with each passing season, an opening on the Maple Leafs back-end could be just what the doctor ordered.
Justin Holl has been more than serviceable to this point as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and has battled through a lot of uphill climbing to get to where he is. He’s been an important contributor in the past for the Leafs, and while he’s faded in a significant way down the stretch, he’ll nevertheless be important once the postseason rolls around and the Maple Leafs depth is inevitably tested. Once the summer comes, however, there’s no reason to be cute. The expansion draft requires tough decisions, and the toughest one of all may be that Justin Holl should be the man to go to the Seattle Kraken.
All Stats via Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference