Let’s not get too “takey” here and come in hot with “Justin Holl is the Leafs best defenceman,” because he’s not. He’s probably their fourth best. They play him the fourth most, he’s paid the fourth most, by perception and beyond he occupies a pretty clear spot in the batting order. And sure, after ripping a bomb past Carey Price and saying “Hammer Time” in his post-game interview, it makes some light-hearted sense to label him at fourth as the group’s clean-up hitter.
But among the many biases we hold, “recency” might be the strongest in sports, which I believe had a pretty sweeping affect on this poll I threw out there the day after the Leafs beat the Habs:
Through 14 games the Leafs’ best defenseman has been:
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) February 11, 2021
Over 55 per cent of the more than 3,400 votes were cast for Holl as the Leafs' best defenceman so far this year.
But that’s a different question, isn’t it? Sure he’s not the Leafs' best defenceman, but has he been that so far this year? Are 55 per cent of voters wrong?
They might not be, depending on what you value most.
The cases for the other guys are all legitimate. In brief:
Morgan Rielly plays the most and it ain’t close. He’s near 24 minutes of ice time per game, he’s the D other teams would most have to game plan for, he’s the power play QB, and he has the most points.
TJ Brodie plays the second most, he’s faced the toughest competition of the group, he’s the only one of the D-corps playing consequential minutes on both special teams (he’s at about a minute per game of PP time and is over two minutes of PK time per game), and more than anything, he’s been a steadying force for a blue line dying for one compared to seasons past. Plays don’t die on Brodie's stick, The Big Mistake has been rare and he’s turned their top-4 into a proper top-4.
Muzzin is the guy you feel could pair with Air Bud and you’d be like “Boy Air Bud’s sure had a pretty good year hasn’t he?” Muzzin is like Chris Tanev beside Quinn Hughes and, now, Chris Tanev beside Noah Hanifin:
Even-strength goals against:
- after 16 gm last year | 13
- after 16 gm this year | 26 (increase of 13)
- after 12 games last year | 13
- after 12 games this year | 4 (decrease of 9)
It's oversimplifying it, but the Chris Tanev effect in a nutshell.
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) February 11, 2021
Or how whoever played wing with Tavares in Long Island suddenly had a career year. Muzzin has a bit of edge on a team that needs every bit it can get, he’s steady, he’s reliable, and he’s captain-like material for this team.
It’s the combination of all this that’s seen the Leafs in unprecedented territory during the Brendan Shanahan era. Only six teams have given up fewer goals per game, and only six have allowed fewer shots per game. Which brings us to Holl, his play, and his case for the team’s most important defender so far this season.
The below is from Dobber Hockey’s Frozen Tools, which is helpful in visualizing how teams have deployed players and how they’ve fared. The size of the circles indicate time on ice, the colour roughly indicates the differential in shot attempts when those players are on the ice compared to their teammates (don’t overthink that part, just know that really blue is good and really red is bad). The axis are labelled:
Holl has been best among Leafs defenders by numerous shot attempt metrics, and where he’s second it’s to Travis Dermott who’s fared well, but been put in favourable conditions (he starts in the offensive zone against weaker forward lines).
Holl doesn’t see much in the way of O-zone starts (his pair with Muzzin starts in the D-zone more than any other), but he’s still first on the team in expected goals percentage and shots for percentage. When Holl's on the ice, even against top lines and starting in his own end, more shots take place at the opponent’s net than his own. That’s a pretty good sign for a quiet D-man.
None of this would be surprising to Sheldon Keefe or Kyle Dubas, who saw this happen in the AHL and stuck with him at the NHL level long enough to show they believed it could happen there, too.
What Holl does is what my Hockey Central co-host, Anthony Stewart, likes to call “the little things.” He’ll get to puck retrievals first and absorb a hit to push the puck somewhere favourable (which sometimes makes you look weak, getting pasted for the cause of poking a puck up the wall one-handed). He’ll angle dangerous players to the boards with his long reach, long stick and good skating. And he’ll jump up the ice to get involved in the offence, even if he’s not particularly dangerous on those rushes (he usually ends up being a decoy, which is fine -- at least he creates favourable spacing).
Here are a few very-Justin-Holl clips from the past few weeks.
After a forecheck that involved his partner Muzzin pinching down and Travis Boyd covering, the puck jumped past everyone and left the opposition with a lane up the rink. It could’ve been a partial breakaway, a dangerous shot -- something -- but this is a great example of how Holl can envelop rushers by skating the same direction (as opposed to backing off and playing them one-on-one) and just angling them off into the sunset.
This next clip is probably the most typical-looking Holl shift among these clips. He reads a play going behind the back of the net and cuts it off with his long stick. He then gets his body between the opposition and the puck, taking a bump.
As the play heads up the ice, he jumps in to make it an even-numbered rush. After not being used on the rush (he should’ve driven through the middle lane, and not gone to the outside and stayed outside – there’s a reason he doesn’t pile up points), he gets to the net, then immediately heads back to resume his defensive responsibilities.
And, finally, you’ll see Holl do this all the time, even though it doesn’t always end well. His preference is to get a shot off coming down the wing here, but the point is about how the play starts. When he sees two opposing players who are too deep, he’s gone up the ice. Watch the two Flames players at the start of the clip get caught behind the net – that’s what Holl's reading off.
The point isn’t that Holl’s an offensive dynamo, it’s that he does the little things that tilt the ice the right way for his team.
So the fancy stats like him the most, the eye test has liked him a lot and, those watching say he’s been the Leafs' best defenceman so far.
My answer is that maybe it’s seemed that way at times, but it’s only possible with the support of the other guys in that top-four that he’s been able to have the success he’s had. It’s the work of everyone together. And of course, he’s done all he possibly could with the nightly 21:30 of opportunity he’s been given.
Holl's been at least an equal part in the Leafs' top-four, a group that finally seems a cohesive, legitimate quad that requires all the parts to be so effective. Whether it’s more PP or PK time everyone seems pretty low-ego and easy-going, and it’s working for a team that hasn’t looked solid back there in years.