Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ Justin Holl under ‘snowballing’ pressure

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) is checked by Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) during second period NHL action in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/CP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Phil Kessel becoming the NHL’s ironman is hard, scientific evidence that there is a god.

1. To view a Toronto Maple Leafs game with a Twitter tab open these days is to see Justin Holl’s name trending.

The city picks a defenceman. Then picks him apart. 

Ask Larry Murphy. Or Dion Phaneuf. Or Jake Gardiner.

Holl, 30, has gradually shifted from sympathetic figure — when he was healthy scratched to oblivion by former coach Mike Babcock — to a frequent whipping boy by a loyal if emotional fanbase with that Passion™.

With Jake Muzzin (neck) and Timothy Liljegren (hernia) injured, and no other right shots at coach Sheldon Keefe’s disposal, Holl has been asked to punch above his weight class.

His top-four ice time this season (20:24) has escalated. He’s being depended upon to snuff out penalties on a busy kill and go head-to-head with some of the opposition’s better forwards.

The results haven’t been great, but Keefe is trying to build up one of his few experienced options.

Remember, this is a player who was protected in the 2021 expansion draft, then dangled as trade bait a few months later. If his confidence is shaken, it would be understandable.

The coach pulled the D-man aside for a one-on-one on-ice chat Friday during practice, after a couple of messy losses and sloppy defensive performances in Las Vegas and San Jose this week.

Did he play the following Logan Couture rush perfectly Thursday? Nope. But neither did Auston Matthews or Erik Källgren. 

“Justin likes really direct and honest feedback. We’ve given him that, certainly a little more direct here today because I think it’s been snowballing here. And it hasn’t taken the positive steps we’d like it to,” said Keefe, who lifted the 2018 Calder Cup with Holl.

“With the injuries we’ve had, he’s an important guy for us on the PK. He is our only righthanded-shot defenseman at this time. And he takes on a lot of heavy minutes defensively. So, he’s an important guy that we need to get more out of.”

Holl is a standup guy, always been willing to face the music. He agrees with Keefe that his first passes need to be crisper on zone exits, that he has another level.

“You want to just be smart with your puck touches and get the puck in the forwards’ hands in a good spot,” Holl said, “where they have more space to skate with it.”

2. The smile on Leafs call-up Filip Kral’s face was still stretching his cheeks once the four-minute grill session from Toronto reporters subsided Friday inside the Kings visitors’ room.

“That’s the longest interview I’ve done in, like, eight months,” he said, chuckling to a team staffer.

The six-foot-two Czech defender had just discovered that he will make his NHL debut Saturday alongside Mark Giordano. He was riding a high. He couldn’t wait to wrap his moment in the camera lens to grab his phone and tell everyone in his “pretty big family” the good news.

A fifth-round pick four years ago, Kral says he didn’t think realizing his NHL dream would be possible until he was “22 or 23.” He turned 23 last week.

“A little bit nervous,” he managed through a perma-grin. “I’m just excited and ready to go.”

Kral played forward until age 14 and 15, upon a coach’s advice.

“If I didn’t play defence, I wouldn’t be here, probably,” said Kral, who admired Ales Hemsky as a youngster.

Chase those dreams, kids. 

But don’t be afraid to adjust them on the fly.

3. Barry Trotz is a) the third-winningest coach in NHL history and b) the most attractive coaching candidate without employment.

He knows how tenuous these 32 jobs can be and has been following the league closely during his time away to focus on family.

Surely, the man knew that making a public statement indicating that an Original Six job would “intrigue me” could rustle up noise, particularly when you consider how many of those half-dozen coaches are either new hires or not under pressure to deliver immediate results.

“But the Canadian teams, you’re under the microscope. You sort of are in New York, too,” the former Islander bench boss told Cam and Strick.

“I think it takes a special coach, special player, to play in Canada because there’s a different pressure.”

Trotz even put a general date on when he might start sending out resumés. He’d be an upgrade in many markets, no doubt.

“I think probably to get everything settled, I’m going to be into early December before I feel comfortable I’ve got family stuff in control. And after that, I’m probably going to have to take a little break, a week or two, to maybe go somewhere warm in the winter. And then after that …”

If you’re a president or GM, surely Trotz’s comments perked your ears.

4. Can you think of a better example of a sum not equalling its parts than the Erik KarlssonBrent Burns duo in San Jose?

Since the Burns trade, Karlsson has looked brilliant again. My eyes couldn’t leave him watching the Sharks’ 4-3 overtime win over the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

Calm and effective. Smooth and heavily used. Confident in generating offence and getting back to help. It was as if the veteran was channeling his inner Battle of Ontario.

He wasn’t perfect, by any means. (He committed a costly puck-over-glass penalty.) But he was the hero in overtime and now sits tied with Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin for most points by a D-man this season (nine) and has more even-strength goals (four) than any other blueliner.

Meanwhile, Burns is playing for a legit contender. He has four points in six games, leads all Hurricanes in ice time, and has more shots than anyone on the team not named Andrei Svechnikov.

I am here to watch two of the NHL’s greatest and most unique characters thrive again.

5. Remember when Trevor Linden abruptly left as president of the Vancouver Canucks in 2018? His vision didn’t align with ownership’s. So instead of butting heads, they split ways.

Outside of their 2020 bubble run, the Canucks haven’t made meaningful progress since.

One can’t help but wonder how events may have unfolded in an alternate universe, with Linden calling the shots.

6. Before California kid Nick Robertson’s road trip home, his mother, Mercedes, sent him two items: a photo of his eight-year-old self representing the Pasadena Maple Leafs and a video of him scoring a goal in that Blue and White sweater as a tyke granted access to the Staples Center ice during one of those cute intermission stunts.

Robertson grew up rooting for the Kings. He cheered for Wayne Simmonds and loved Kyle Clifford’s championship runs in 2012 and 2014.

He gets to play his first hometown NHL game Saturday — on a line with Simmonds.

Robertson turned to his new linemate Friday at practice: “It’s kinda like old times. I used to watch you play in this building, way back when.”

Simmonds smiled.

“Nicky’s gonna be a really good player for a long time, but I think it’s cool when that happens. Another coincidence: I actually played with Willy (Nylander’s) dad when he came on a PTO to Philly. Once you get older and you play in the league a while, you start to see things like that. So it’s pretty cool, actually,” Simmonds said.

This “full circle” L.A. homecoming is huge for Robertson, who has so many friends and family members coming to watch him play that he needed to split tickets between Saturday’s game in L.A. and Sunday’s in Anaheim to accommodate them all.

“I’m definitely excited to play here. I haven’t played here since I was eight years old,” said Robertson, who moved to Michigan in 2010 to seek high-end competition.

“Everything that started me playing hockey, getting obsessed with NHL, started with L.A. and the Kings.”

Once again, he’ll pull on a maple leaf crest and try to score. But this time he won’t be forced to skate around on ice that’s been chewed up for 20 minutes.

“It’s kind of funny I’m coming back as a Toronto Maple Leaf,” Robertson said. 

7. It was both stunning and unsettling to see so many vacant chairs at SAP Center in San Jose. The Shark Tank had a longstanding reputation as one of the loudest and liveliest barns in the league. A remarkable stretch of 19 playoff appearances over 21 seasons will do that.

They’re now tracking for a fourth consecutive playoff miss, the worst stretch of futility in franchise history. Attendance has dipped to 25th leaguewide.

The announced gate for their home date against the Leafs (normally a safe road draw) was just 12,507. To the eye, that number seemed generous. We might’ve had a chance of cramming us all into Mullett Arena.

Rookie GM Mike Grier is ready to rebuild, listening on trade offers for any roster player not named Tomas Hertl, according to The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun.

No-move and no-trade clauses will make that challenging. 

That said, 33-year-old captain Logan Couture ($8-million cap hit through 2027) still has juice in the tank, and plenty of should-be playoff teams could use a boost up the middle. Might be nice to see Couture make another spring run. He could add a ton to a contender — but he’d have to agree, and salary would need to be retained.

8. Quote of the Week. 

Here’s the remarkable Brad Marchand on the morning before going out and scoring two goals plus an assist in his return from hip surgery — four weeks ahead of schedule:

“They told me it was going to be end of November. I was like, ‘It’s not going to be the end of November.”

9. The Seattle Kraken swear they have a plan for Shane Wright, yet the fourth-overall draft pick has been a health scratch four times and is unable to stick in a weak lineup.

When he does dress, he skates and average of 6:51 and steers clear of special-teams work. 

Send him back to Kingston. Raise his confidence. Work on his development. Get him playing meaningful shifts — and lots of them.

10. At age 39, Mark Giordano is the oldest active skater in the NHL (we see you, Craig Anderson, stacking those pads and Ws). He was asked which tune he’d like to blast at Scotiabank Arena if the Maple Leafs ever switched to personalized goal songs.

His choice was perfect: Jay-Z’s “Young Forever.”

11. With Timo Meier — the NHL’s shot leader — finally finding the back of the net Thursday with his 46th puck on net, Florida’s Aleksander Barkov inherits the crown as the most snakebit shooter.

The Panthers star centre is already eight games and 26 shots deep without striking gold.

12. Flower Power.

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