ST. PAUL, Minn. — At this time last year Justin Holl occasionally felt like he was grinding away for "nothing."
He was technically a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, albeit one who basically only did long, lonely conditioning skates and then watched games from the press box.
Now the payoff for his perseverance just keeps coming.
First Holl carved out an important role on this year’s team and then he was rewarded with a $6-million, three-year extension hours before facing his hometown Minnesota Wild on Tuesday — the kind of security you might never have expected for a 27-year-old with 51 career NHL games on his resume.
"A trying year like last year is always difficult, but I always felt confident that I had the abilities," Holl said before puck drop at Xcel Energy Center. "And then it just kind of comes down to you; whether you can do it or not."
If the NHL had an award for comeback player of the year, he’d be a front-runner. Holl was scratched 71 times last season and is now playing nearly 20 minutes per night — making him indispensable to an organization short on right-shot defencemen in the process.
That seemed unlikely when he couldn’t even get a sniff of playing time in his first full NHL campaign. Holl played 137 minutes total in 2018-19 and told Sportsnet earlier this season that it felt bleak "pretty much at all times."
"I think when you just think of playing 11 games out of 82, it’s a lot of practices, a lot of bag skates, for not a lot of reward," he said. "It’s tough. You don’t get the fun part, which is the games.
"It felt like you were kind of grinding away for nothing."
He’s found even more of a footing in the lineup since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as Leafs coach on Nov. 20.
Those two had plenty of familiarity after three AHL seasons together and Keefe quickly elevated Holl to the shutdown pairing with Jake Muzzin, where he’s largely thrived.
"[He’s] given us somebody to lean on heavily for defensive zone situations and defensive assignments against very good players, so that means a lot to us," said Keefe. "It allows us to open up Tyson Barrie to play in a lot of offensive situations and just has a positive trickle-down effect."
Holl’s story is one of perseverance.
A second-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, he started his pro career in the ECHL. He originally arrived in Toronto on an AHL-only deal and had to work his way up from a spare part with the Marlies to a key member of the Calder Cup-winning team in 2018.
"Through that season it looked to me like he was just ready for more," said Keefe. "He was ready for the next step and the next opportunity and that’s how it’s worked out."
Holl’s progression has continued in the NHL and comes at an important time for the Leafs, who still have three pending unrestricted free agents on their blue line (Muzzin, Barrie and Cody Ceci) along with restricted free agent Travis Dermott.
Holl could have tested the open market himself on July 1, but opted instead to repay the loyalty he’s been shown in Toronto while getting a level of financial security few would have thought possible for him.
Contract talks heated up in the last week and a deal was reached relatively quickly. Now Holl wants to continue to prove he belongs.
"More than the contract and more than making money you just want to be an integral part of the team and you want to be doing your part," he said. "So I think in terms of that it’s just a continual process and it never really stops. You never really relax.
"The pressure’s always on to be your best."