Holl in thick of Leafs roster battle: ‘I gotta make it happen’

Justin Holl talks about his chances of competing for a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs blueline in 2018-19.

TORONTO – In the middle of recounting his varied excursions in Costa Rica this summer to a group of reporters — the jet skiing, the snorkelling, the jungle adventures and all those howler monkey encountersJustin Holl stops and stares directly into the soul of a rolling camera from a national outlet.

He wants to make something abundantly career.

“I was still in the weight room every day. They had a nice facility there,” Holl clarifies, fighting back a coy grin as his audience chuckles. “No days off.”

Eight days away from his most legitimate crack at an NHL lineup, the 26-year-old late-blooming defenceman is hoping to break the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening-night roster as smoothly as he breaks the fourth wall.

A positive sign: During the Leafs’ unofficial (but fairly formalized) hour-long, pre-camp practices at MasterCard Centre — observed from the bleachers by president Brendan Shanahan, head coach Mike Babcock, and his staff — Holl is now skating with the main group, while other candidates for the fringes of the big club’s defence core (Jordan Subban, Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen) are training with the Marlies group.

Wednesday morning, the Leafs squad split in two sides, an Auston Matthews–led white team and a John Tavares-charged blue team, for a lengthy four-on-four scrimmage. (Winner gets the captaincy!… kidding.)

“It’s funny. There’s a lot of space out there for guys who are pretty talented. Matthews, Tavares, and you could go on and on. So it’s definitely difficult,” Holl says. “We’re starting to crank it up and start getting back into real hockey.”

Say what you will about the Maple Leafs’ defence core that allowed an unsightly 28 goals in their seven-game ouster by the Boston Bruins in last spring’s playoffs, it is returning — for the most part — intact for 2018-19.

Until we see otherwise, we’re pencilling in Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey and Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev as the top four. Lefty Travis Dermott is a safe bet at No. 5. The deeper you go, the more things get interesting.

With Roman Polak moving on to Dallas on July 1, Holl will engage the re-signed Connor Carrick, 24, and KHL import Igor Ozhiganov, 25, in a tussle for the 6 and 7 slots on the depth chart. All three are righties.

“There’s a lot of good defencemen in this organization, and we’re going to be battling for a couple spots,” Holl says. “Bottom line is, I have to play as well as I can, and if that happens, I feel pretty good about my game.”

Holl is one of a group of Marlies who feel downright wonderful about their game, coming off a summer in which the AHL champions passed around the Calder Cup for individual parties with families and friends.

A pro championship will give any athlete a profile and confidence boost, Holl figures, even at the farm-system level.

So does the fact that Holl has scored in every single NHL game he’s played in his life, going a remarkable two-for-two last winter during his emergency cup of coffee.

“A lot of people were telling me that this summer, all the goal-per-game jokes. So that was really fun,” says Holl, though he’s quick to focus on the present.

“Just playing well is the most important thing. That was a lot of fun, but now it’s back to it and on to the next challenge.”

That challenge, which begins in earnest when training camp opens for real a week Thursday, has been eased by a room speckled with so many Marlies graduates.

“I’ve played with him a fair amount. I know he’s an unreal defenceman, very skilled. He’s very determined to get where he wants to get in life. He’s a real smart guy,” Dermott says.

“When the time matters, he’s the best he can be. He’s someone I’d want on my team.”

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Holl also trains alongside Gardiner, a childhood friend, back home in Minnesota all summer.

Though he won’t go so far as to say his solid relationship with fellow Calder Cup winner Kyle Dubas could help his cause, Holl believes he’s prepared, like the new GM, for a promotion.

“[Dubas] is very smart. He definitely has an eye for talent. He’s got a good track record building programs with Sault Ste. Marie and the Marlies the past couple years. I have full confidence in him, and I couldn’t be happier to have him as a GM,” Holl says.

“Whether he likes me or doesn’t like me, it’s mostly up to me, how I play. Whatever the GM thinks of you is a reflection of how you do on the ice.

“I think I can be a stay-at-home guy. I can be solid on both ends and contribute. That’s the goal going into camp. Now I gotta make it happen.”

With training camp now less than 10 days away, William Nylander’s absence from the informal team skates is becoming more conspicuous. Fellow unsigned RFAs Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg), Sam Reinhart (Buffalo), and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton) did practice with teammates in their respective cities Wednesday…. Nylander was not the only absentee from Wednesday’s well-attended drills, though. While the vast majority of Leafs are in town, Patrick Marleau, Andreas Johnsson and Mitch Marner did not participate. Don’t read anything into that…. Frederik Andersen tended net with a blank, all-black mask, suggesting a fresh design could be on the way…. Boston Bruins depth defenceman Cody Goloubef, a Mississauga, Ont., native, also scrimmaged with the Leafs main group…. Josh Leivo and Carrick returned to the ice an hour after sweating through a 60-minute team practice to put in more individual work.

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