TORONTO — It was the kind of breakthrough Justin Holl always believed he had in him. But even in the early stages of this Toronto Maple Leafs season there was very little to suggest he was about to become such an important figure in the organization.
Consider where the defenceman stood at training camp as a 27-year-old with 13 career NHL games on his resume.
Oh, and 71 healthy scratches the season prior.
Holl was just battling to stay off waivers in September, with the Leafs having brought in a number of depth options over the summer who had more big-league experience than he did: Ben Harpur, Kevin Gravel and Jordan Schmaltz, among them.
Even after making the opening night roster, he watched the first game from the press box. Holl played nine minutes two nights later in Columbus and was immediately scratched again.
Who could have predicted then he was about to take a spot on the team’s shutdown pairing and run with it? Did Holl even believe it possible himself?
“I didn’t have any doubt that I could play at this level, but you know there’s always uncertainty of whether you will. You know what I mean?” he said Tuesday. “There’s a difference between knowing that you can and knowing that you’re going to do it or that you will do it or that you’ll get the chance.
“I think in that sense there was some doubt.”
As we reflect on his 2019-20 season — which may or may not be over, depending on the coronavirus pandemic — it’s clear that Holl is worthy of serious consideration for the Bill Masterton Trophy.
That award recognizes the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, and what better sums up his story than that?
There were times in 2018-19 where he felt like he was “grinding away for nothing” while going months between playing. He had become a dominant AHL defenceman but was only one rung above a practice player with the Leafs, squeezing just 11 games and 137 total minutes of ice time from a campaign where he was completely healthy.
A couple things broke his way this season. The Leafs dealt with more injuries, for starters, which helped get him in the lineup. The November coaching change from Mike Babcock to Sheldon Keefe didn’t hurt, either, since it reunited him with a man who had leaned heavily on him during their time with the Marlies.
“I was able to get my foot in the door a little bit as the season went on and started accumulating more responsibilities,” said Holl.
From early December onwards, he thrived while being tasked with facing the opposition’s best players. He and Jake Muzzin formed the Leafs’ most reliable pairing — generating 58 per cent of expected goals and 55 per cent of even-strength shot attempts together while
often starting shifts against dangerous attackers in their own end.
Holl logged more minutes than half the defencemen in the NHL — averaging 18:31 in his 68 appearances — and was rewarded with a $6-million, three-year extension hours before facing his hometown Minnesota Wild on New Year’s Eve.
“It just is a credit to his personality and his positivity and his passion for life and for the game and the type of teammate that he is that he just continued to work and made it easy to keep him around,” Keefe said that day.
“It was unfortunate in one regard in that we never got to see the group really all together,” Dubas said Monday, after signing KHL free agent Mikko Lehtonen. “On the positive side, it allowed for a player like Justin Holl to really flourish and get more opportunity.
That presented us with more certainty on one end of it.”
Given the renaissance his career’s gone through, it’s understandable why Holl is anxiously awaiting the chance to finish off his impressive season. He’s been waiting out COVID-19 back home in Minnesota and closely following updates provided by Dubas and the NHL Players’
The 28-year-old plans to drive back to Toronto as soon as there’s a concrete plan in place for when team facilities will reopen. He’ll then observe the government-mandated 14-day period of self-isolation before getting back on the ice.
“It seems like other sports are starting to kind of open up and set dates for a return so I hope that means we won’t be far behind,” said Holl. “In that sense, I’m optimistic and I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice.”