TORONTO — Ask Justin Holl for the low point of last year’s 71-scratch season and the affable Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman paints a pretty bleak picture.
"Pretty much at all times," he says. "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. 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."
Perhaps this is merely a story of delayed gratification.
One of the biggest surprises early in this Maple Leafs season is the fact Holl has emerged from purgatory and found salvation. You could it see Tuesday when the native of Tonka Bay, Minn., dressed against his hometown Minnesota Wild for the first time — getting interviewed between periods on the visiting Fox Sports North broadcast and skating in a fourth straight game for Toronto.
While the headlines belonged to others in a comfortable 4-2 Leafs victory — Morgan Rielly and his four assists; Mitch Marner and his goal and two assists; Frederik Andersen and his 27 saves — Holl could draw satisfaction from simply being able to contribute to the cause.
That was scarcely ever an option for him during his rookie NHL campaign, when he didn’t get called down from the press box to play until Nov. 1 and endured separate scratch streaks of 26, 23 and 12 games.
It might have broken a lesser man.
"Last year was really tough," said Holl. "I’m just happy that I’m getting a chance this year. It makes it a little easier when you get a couple games in a row and get the confidence going."
The pathway to a regular role was cleared even further with Monday’s decision to send 19-year-old Rasmus Sandin back to the American Hockey League. That’ll leave one spot open on the blue line even when Travis Dermott returns from his shoulder injury next week and Holl already appears to have the inside track on Martin Marincin, Kevin Gravel and the other depth candidates.
To stay in Mike Babcock’s good graces, he needs to play with confidence in his own zone and get the puck moving in the right direction. Smart and simple. Holl had plenty of external factors working against him last year, but it’s hard to look past the fact that he was on the ice for 10 goals against at 5-on-5 in the 11 games he dressed for.
That number has been shaved down to one against in his five outings so far this season, and it’s dipped in correlation with the scoring chance statistics tracked by the Leafs coaching staff. The team is generating 68 per cent of the chances while Holl is on the ice, according to naturalstattrick.com, and producing 59 per cent of the shot attempts.
"When he plays, there’s no scoring chances against. It’s real simple," said Babcock, when asked why Holl’s standing has changed internally. "I don’t know what a lot of the numbers add up to, but I know next to his name there’s no scoring chances against. As long as he plays simple and the puck gets out of our zone and he boxes out and plays well defensively (there’s a role for him).
"I’ve talked to Hollsy a lot about that: ‘If you look at your career, are you a point guy? No. What do you do then? You keep it out of your net."’
Against the Wild, Holl made a nice play 1-on-1 to keep the rushing Luke Kunin from getting a high-quality chance against Andersen. The goaltender later bailed he and partner Martin Marincin out when Marcus Foligno snuck behind them for a clear breakaway from the neutral zone.
No added emotion came from facing the Wild. Officially just 18 games into his NHL career and three months shy of his 28th birthday, simply playing any games at this level is thrill enough.
"I wasn’t a diehard, but I was definitely a fan," he said of the Wild. "More of a fair-weather fan. When the playoffs came around, like in 2003 when Andrew Brunette scored the Game 7 winner against Colorado, that was cool.
"That was a lot of fun and I went to a couple of those games."
He’s travelled a long road to this point as a former second-round draft pick who ended up in the ECHL following four years at the University of Minnesota.
Even when he finally made the show last season, he barely got to feel like a true member of the Leafs at all. Holl looked for motivation wherever he could find it during the most taxing season of his life. Seeing former teammate/scratch-mate Josh Leivo thrive in Vancouver following a trade from the Leafs last December is one such example.
"I think he’s a good resource in terms of he knew what it was like," Holl said of Leivo. "He’s like ‘Just be confident in yourself, remember who you are and don’t let it get to you."’
The best part of Holl’s story is that he didn’t have to go searching for greener pastures to get his chance. The right-shot defender, a 2018 Calder Cup champion with the Marlies, appears to have benefitted from the slate being wiped clean when Dave Hakstol was hired this summer as Babcock’s assistant in charge of the blue line and penalty kill.
He also carries a $675,000 cap hit in an organization that needs every cap savings it can find, particularly when it’s attached to a useful player.
"I want to make it work here and I want to play on this team because there’s so many great players and they make it easy on you," said Holl. "That’s my main goal. I love it here. This is my fifth year (with the organization) and playing here is great."
Especially when you actually get to play.