DETROIT – As challenging as it might be to salvage a defensive positive from a 7-3 beatdown on home ice by a division rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs had one Thursday night.
His name is Justin Holl.
Despite hanging onto the slippery sixth rung of Toronto’s defence lineup ladder, Holl went plus-2 in that blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, while firing three shots on net and earning an impressive 15:28 in ice time. Only once in the scattered 11 games he appeared in 2018-19 did the depth defender see so much usage.
Granted his shifts have been limited and sheltered as a third-pairing placeholder for the injured Travis Dermott, but Holl leads all Leafs defencemen in even-strength Corsi (59.7 per cent) and scoring chances (65.5 per cent) through five games this season.
Which means the 27-year-old has fully earned the right to stick in the lineup Saturday night in Detroit, while the roster’s two other bubble players — fourth-line forwards Jason Spezza and Nic Petan, each of whom committed a costly penalty against the Lightning — are coming out, in favour of Nick Shore and Dmytro Timashov.
“He’s been off to a pretty good start for us,” coach Mike Babcock said. “It’s simple for us. We just watch. And if you play good, you get to play more. For him, this is what he wanted. He’s getting an opportunity right now. You gotta seize it.”
Mitch Marner praised Holl’s penalty-killing and stickwork in advance of the Leafs’ chance to snuff out a three-game losing skid against the hot-start Detroit Red Wings.
“He’s a guy who can also make a lot of quick first plays out of our zone,” Marner said. “I’m super happy to see him back in the lineup and playing as well as he is right now.”
The mere fact that Holl’s number has been called for three consecutive games — something that didn’t happen until March of last season and only as a result of multiple injuries to core defencemen — has boosted the Minnesota native’s confidence.
“At this point I’m just trying to keep it going,” said Holl, enjoying the fast chemistry he’s struck with rookie Rasmus Sandin. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner, really.”
Sandin speaks highly of Holl’s skating and comfort. Although they are both graduates from the Leafs’ farm system, their paths never crossed with the Marlies, so they’ve been making a concerted effort in recent weeks to spend time together off the ice.
“When you get to know the guy as a person, the chemistry overall gets better,” Sandin said. “[Communication] is a big part of the game. You want to help each other out there, and that makes it a lot easier.”
After what Babcock deemed an unacceptable performance at Scotiabank Arena, the Maple Leafs held “a family discussion” Friday in which the players and coaches held one another to account for a weak effort.
The swap of Spezza for Shore, Babcock noted, has more to do with a penalty kill that surrendered a pair of goals and looked stuck in the mud than the fourth line’s 5-on-5 play.
“Shoresy’s real good in that area, has been his whole career,” Babcock said. “So that’s an important piece.”
While captain John Tavares has called for improved structure and defensive play in front of the crease, starting goaltender Frederik Andersen looks to bounce back from allowing seven goals for just the second time as a Leaf.
“You don’t get to take anything back when you look at videos,” Andersen said. “Just because you let it in on Thursday doesn’t mean you can save it in practice the following day.
“I’ve felt great. Sometimes you don’t have it. Sometimes the other team comes in and plays a little bit better and embarrasses you like that, but you’ve got to move on.”