Quick Shifts: The remarkable rise of Maple Leafs' Justin Holl

Justin Holl talks with the media about the mentality and skill needed to block a shot in the NHL.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Maybe the shootout ain't all bad.

1. In this business, they say it’s never OK to root for teams. But every once in a while, it might be OK to root for people.

Justin Holl was drafted to the NHL 11 years ago. He was toiling in the ECHL six years ago. Two years ago, he was healthy-scratched by the Toronto Maple Leafs 71 times.

When we spoke to him 16 months ago, Holl wasn’t sure if he still fit into the organization’s plans. He was just trying to make the lineup.

Now? Well, now Holl and Jake Muzzin have developed into one of the premier defensive pairings in hockey. Their minutes are high, their matchups are tough, and the results — be it ice-tilting underlying numbers or traditional boxcar stats — are impressive.

Holl’s plus-4 rating tops all Maple Leafs and bumps him to a plus-20 over his past 78 games. His five even-strength assists are the most on the team.

Now, we can’t fathom Kyle Dubas dare exposing his $2-million, top-four defender in the expansion draft.

“I don't know that a lot has changed,” says coach Sheldon Keefe, who used Muzzin-Holl as his primary shutdown pair in the bubble. “I'm sure he's got a lot more confidence coming back this season, and that's helpful, but he was a really good player for us last season.”

Get Opportunity and Confidence alone in a room, and they can make some sweet magic.

“He looks good physically and he's coming into his own right now. We've done a pretty good job thus far,” Muzzin says of his righthand man. “He's a little more confident. Obviously, another year of experience last year helps you learn players, learn systems more. And he has just come in ready.”

Adds William Nylander: “He’s taken a big step, but I played with him a little bit in the AHL, and I always thought he was a player with good skill and a good defenceman. He's worked very hard to get here, and all that hard work pays off in the end. He's been doing great for us.”

How Holl measures his own success is simple: (a) Am I playing a lot of minutes? (b) Are we winning?

Check (22:00) and double check (7-2).

Holl credits having a consistent, complementary and communicative partner in Muzzin for his improved play.

Muzzin, he says, is excellent at busting up cycles and coming out of corners with the puck. Holl tries to snuff out attacks early upon entry and eliminate forwards’ options with his skating.

“A year makes a lot of difference,” Holl says. “I like being in this position a lot better than the position I was in last year. And it doesn't mean that I feel comfortable in my position or anything like that. I don't think anybody in this league feels comfortable with where they're at.

“For me, it's just a continuous process trying to improve.”

Today is Holl's 29th birthday. His gift? More Connor McDavid.

2. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early.

The NHL’s hard new divisional boundaries have created some fast and fascinating snapshots of the standings — and made it nearly impossible to accurately chart the strength of one team against the entire league.

The West-leading Golden Knights are already up five points on the basement-dwelling Sharks, plus a game in hand.

The undefeated Stars are nipping at the heels of the Blue Jackets for top spot in the Central — but due to their late start, Dallas has five games in hand. And “top seed” Columbus has somehow managed this climb despite a negative-2 goal differential.

Despite their breach of COVID protocol, Washington leads the cutthroat East and is still waiting to lose in regulation. The Capitals have already opened an eight-point lead on the Rangers, a franchise with playoff aspirations. It’s still January, but that gap already feels too wide to close.

Which brings us to the North.

Losers of seven straight and holders of a league-worst minus-19 goal differential, the Senators are giving off two-years-away-from-being-two-years-away vibes.

The Alberta squads have supplanted the Canucks as the Team to Panic About. The Flames held a players-only meeting six games in.

The Jets are quietly getting their game in order — and they haven’t even unveiled Pierre-Luc Dubois yet.

Things are peachy in Montreal and Toronto, for now.

That only four of the six Canadian teams that see themselves as contenders will qualify for the post-season means we should expect some off-season fireworks.

Ask yourself this: Of the Leafs, Habs, Jets, Canucks, Oilers and Flames, whose general manager should absolutely be safe if they miss the cut? Whose head coach? Whose core group of young talent?

Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice is the only North Division coach signed beyond 2021-22, and Travis Green’s lame-duck status in Vancouver is getting more awkward by the week.

The absence of fans in the rinks have drained some of the tension from the outcome of these games, but the schedule makers have done their best to inject some drama back in.

3. The St. Louis Blues and Vince Dunn dragged their feet in the off-season before agreeing to a one-year bridge deal a few days before training camp opened.

Then Dunn was healthy-scratched in just the seventh game of the season, Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout win over Vegas. A minus-3 through six games, Dunn has seen his ice time dip since Craig Berube stepped behind the bench.

“He's got to clean up the mistakes, that's the bottom line,” Berube told reporters Tuesday night.

“That's it. That's all I'm going to say about that. He knows. We talked. I love Dunner, but you've got to clean the mistakes up.”

Not every day a 24-year-old puck-moving defenceman on a reasonable deal ($1.875 million) becomes available.

One has to wonder if the trade rumours, like Dunn’s scratch, are a motivational tool — or if suitors should make an offer and buy low on a talent yet to maximize his potential.

4. Please. For a moment, set aside your race, your gender, your religion, your political beliefs, and your preferred points card.

Let us all come together as one and appreciate the utter filthiness that is Alexandre Texier’s poke-check shootout winner:

To think, this was the kid’s first-ever NHL shootout attempt.

“I was shaking my head,” Max Domi said. “I think the whole bench was shaking our heads. That's absolutely off the charts, that move there. It's pretty ridiculous.”

Pretty special that one can spend decades watching hockey and still see a 21-year-old glide in with something wholly creative and original.

5. We’re fewer than 10 games into the season, and already 14(!) teams are leaning on long-term injury reserve to ease their salary cap situations. That’s gotta be a record, I thought.

It's not.

Our friends at CapFriendly inform me that at one point last February, 17 teams were using LTIR.

6. Happy 60th to my boyhood hero, Wayne Gretzky.

In recognition of the birthday, Mark Greczmiel, director of 2016’s excellent California Golden Seals Story documentary, dropped his full interview with Gretzky (watch below).

Gretzky takes us back to 1988, when the Edmonton Oilers told him to pick his trade destination. Red Wings fans: Blame Walter…

“I sort of narrowed it down to the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and L.A. Kings. People always thought that I came to L.A. because my wife Janet said, ‘OK, you should play in L.A.’ The reality was, my wife and I were really set and sort of had our mind that we were going to go to Detroit, because I grew up a huge Gordie Howe fan, it was close to my hometown, and it's a great sports city,” Gretzky says in the previously unreleased interview.

The Red Wings reportedly tabled a trade package of Adam Oates, Petr Klima and Joe Murphy, plus picks and cash. Think of the alternate hockey universe that would’ve created — or how slow the growth of sunbelt hockey would’ve been had Gretzky not gone to the beach.

“It was my dad who actually said, ‘You should do something really unique. You should go to L.A.’ And I remember thinking, Wow, OK. So, I chose L.A. We were 20th out of 21 teams the year before; they were second-to-last in the league. It wasn't a very good team,” Gretzky recalls.

“I went from one of the greatest teams that ever played the game, winning four championships in five years. And I remember thinking [during] the very first exhibition game — we had 10,000 people attend at the old L.A. Forum — Wow, what did I get myself into?

“But we had the right group of people that understood it was more than just playing the game. We had to get in the market and sell the game and introduce kids and get community hockey going and high school hockey going. And the rest is history. I truly enjoyed and loved every minute of playing in L.A.”

7. Because Paul Stastny participated in his fifth game this season, the Winnipeg Jets forfeit their 2022 fourth-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights, fulfilling a condition of their trade.

Interesting that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made the Blue Jackets include a 2022 third-rounder in the Patrik Laine–Pierre-Luc Dubois blockbuster.

Essentially makes up for that lost pick in the Stastny deal.

8. Outdoor rinks are open in Toronto.

Limited capacity. Masks mandatory. No sticks. No pucks. No shinny at any time.

So, hockey-loving kids (without backyard rink access) can get their skating fix in public and shoot tennis balls in their driveway — but dare not combine the two.

You can eat a hamburger. You can eat fries. But never at the same meal.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

On my near-daily trips to the local rink, I’ve seen kids set up two learn-to-skate frames at either end, drop a hockey glove, and proceed to wage intense games of “ice soccer,” trying to kick the glove/puck into the opponents’ “net.”
Anything to simulate the game the pros get to play for real.

“I know personally many kids and professional players, leagues around the world, that aren’t playing. That are just waiting in limbo and just very affected by the virus. And we're very fortunate to have this opportunity,” Leafs captain John Tavares says.

“I’m already thankful and know how special it is to be an NHL hockey player and play at this level every day under normal circumstances. But to be here, playing at a time like this, with everything that's going on… we can hopefully bring some normalcy, some joy to a lot of people's lives.

“To have an opportunity to play, there's nothing better. I know many people at many different levels would love to start playing, so hopefully that time comes to everyone.”

9. Quote of the Week goes to Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, for his response when asked how tough it was to trade away the third-overall pick from the 2016 draft:

“It wasn't that difficult. We got the second-overall pick from that same draft.”

Mic drop.

Interesting to learn that Kekalainen aggressively tried to trade up in ’16 to secure Finland’s Patrik Laine, but Cheveldayoff wouldn’t budge.

Hot trade fallout rumour: Kekalainen’s ask of the Ducks in a potential Pierre-Luc Dubois trade started with Team USA hero Trevor Zegras as the centrepiece.

10. Just looking at this updated schedule — in which four southern teams will average greater than a game for every 48 hours to round out their seasons — is enough to strain my groin.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell says that through his rescheduling discussions with the league, the notion of cancelling games outright was not tabled.

The NHL is trying hard to avoid pushing any team through three games in three nights when rescheduling due to positive COVID-19 cases because it will increase injury risk. Surely, the Players’ Association would have something to say about that, too.

Even before the Hurricanes had their outbreak, the club was using its video room as second locker room so no more than 10 players in would be changing in the same vicinity. Now the Canes are installing rapid testing machines in their facilities, and they’ll take sanitizing guns on road trips.

During this break in play, Carolina’s coaching staff conducted practice via Zoom and delivered bicycles to players’ homes to help keep them active.

“This isn’t ideal for anybody. We got guys sitting in Nashville in a hotel room that can’t leave their room,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said of the quarantine.

“Are we going to be in tiptop shape? Probably not.”

Same, Rod. Same.

After their forced 10-day sabbatical, the Hurricanes failed to score in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay Thursday.

11. Things are looking up in Washington.

Of course, we are referring to the Capitals’ sweater game, which has been on fire all year.

These beautiful new third jerseys follow up the Caps’ superb red Reverse Retro sweaters, which topped all 30 teams’ Reverse Retros in sales at the NHL.com shop when all those new threads hit the Christmas market.

For those scoring at home, the Rangers, Ducks, Avalanche and Coyotes round out the top five Reverse Retro best-sellers.

12. Seriously: Is there anything better than being part of a team?

Go where you’re wanted…

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.