Justin Holl is an underwhelming enigma

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The Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans have suffered more than their fair share of enigmatic stars: from Tomas Kaberle to Jake Gardiner to Morgan Rielly; from Jason Blake to Phil Kessel to Mitch Marner; it can be a rollercoaster here in Toronto. Typically, the branding of “enigma” is given to those previously listed high-skill players that don’t seem to bring their best every night. When they’re on, they’re a hero. When they’re off, they’re a villain.

It’s rare that a low-cost, defensive-minded player like Justin Holl develops that tumultuous reputation of being amazing some nights and a disaster on others, but that’s what I’ve observed this season.

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On nights when Holl is at his best, the Leafs have one of the best “found wallet” assets in the league. On his off nights, the Leafs would be lucky if the Seattle Kraken are dumb enough to take him off of our hands in the upcoming expansion draft.

As is always the case, the reality is somewhere in between. What Justin Holl was able to accomplish this season was a consistent spot in the Leafs’ top four defenders alongside Jake Muzzin, which is the same role he played in when Sheldon Keefe took over the team in the 2019-20 season. For a look at his performance in that season, take a look at last year’s review of his regular season play by our own Scott Maxwell.

In this shortened 2021 NHL season, Holl played in all but one of the Leafs’ regular season games, missing one with an injury after taking a puck to the face. His partner-in-defense Jake Muzzin missed three regular season games himself, and otherwise, the two were chained together like our grandparents’ marriages (to Gen Z, I mean your great grandparents I guess).

On one hand, Justin Holl has certain expectations of him as a seemingly established top-four defender. Over the season-and-a-half in this role, he has started to garner significant flack when he doesn’t perform to those expectations. His worst plays are reminiscent of the slow, stone-handed defenders of old. On the other hand, Holl is a fantastic personality. He gets to showcase this in the fourth season of Toronto’s YouTube series “Leaf-to-Leaf”, and it frankly makes him hard to truly dislike. Combining that with some legitimately successful shifts in shutting down some of the league’s best players, he can really seem like a core piece of this Toronto team.

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In those 52 games, the pairing played a total of 775 minutes and 22 seconds of ice time. In that time, they accomplished the following:

Player 1 Player 2 CF CA CF% GF GA GF% SCF SCA SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO
Justin Holl Jake Muzzin 691 672 50.7 42 30 58.33 384 326 54.08 10.94 91.18 1.021
w/o Justin Holl w/o Jake Muzzin 1411 1366 50.81 74 50 59.68 799 667 54.5 9.49 93.04 1.025

The top row is what happened on the ice at 5-on-5 when they were on the ice. In the bottom row we see what happened when they were off the ice, again at 5-on-5 only. It’s clear that they stayed afloat in terms of Corsi (shot attempts), had really good goal results (due to an inflated on-ice SH%, typical of top heavy offences like the Maple Leafs), and controlled scoring chances well. However, in none of these respects did they do any better than the Leafs as a whole.

Looking at the same numbers with Score and Venue adjustments, where it’s factored in what the score state has on these stats, and what biases the home team stat counters might have, we see the exact same trend, so I won’t show it here. These stats are from Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool, freely accessible here, so feel free to play around there.

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By the Evolving-Hockey Goals Above Replacement statistical model, Justin Holl benefits from playing with a top-10 defender in the league in Jake Muzzin.

By his own right, he sits 34th in the league among defenders with minimum 500 minutes of ice time in 2021 with the following profile:

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It’s interesting and make you think a little bit to see that Holl’s positive influence is so much more from the offensive side of the puck than the defensive side. The model does aim to eliminate teammate effects, but it’s clear that Holl’s stats are benefitting from playing with such an elite offensive group like what the Maple Leafs boast.

This model, while encompassing all statistically relevant information into one number, isn’t perfect.

As mentioned above, the Leafs may not have any choice about what to do with Justin Holl, as they are likely to leave him exposed in the Seattle expansion draft, where he could be selected to go play for Ron Francis’ newcomers. This is what consistently happens in EASPORTS’ NHL 21, for what that’s worth (almost nothing).

However, considering the state of flux that the Leafs’ forward group is in, beyond the top four, it might be the Leafs’ prerogative to protect their top 4 defense along with their core four forwards. In that case, Holl clearly is someone the Leafs want to keep, and thus we’ll likely see him back in the same role.

A third option exists, though, where the Leafs choose to expose Holl to Seattle, but he doesn’t get taken. In that case we will be left unsure of his future, exactly. With the Leafs aiming to be right up against the upper limit of the salary cap, it’s possible that Holl’s $2M cap hit becomes unaffordable with Timothy Liljegren and/or a cheaper UFA replacement in his stead. He could end up traded to a team that needs some defensive depth at a reasonable cost, like the Vancouver Canucks or the Detroit Red Wings.

If he does stay with Toronto, I don’t expect his role to change all that much. If anything it will decrease to a 3rd pairing role beside either Rasmus Sandin or Travis Dermott. However, I see this as unlikely, since both of those players have a history of playing with Timothy Liljegren, who I expect to occupy a spot on that 3rd pair.

So, it stands where we began: Justin Holl’s story with Toronto is underwhelmingly enigmatic. He’s too good for the bottom pair but not good enough for a Cup contender’s top-four group. He’s not expensive, but he might be too expensive for a Cup contender. He’s not flashy, and yet somehow he draws vitriol on his off nights and pure adoration on his on nights. What can you make of this except to hope for the best for him, whether he’s a Toronto Maple Leaf next season or not.