Long-awaited NHL debut ‘means everything’ to Maple Leafs’ Hollowell

Newest Maple Leafs defenceman Mac Hollowell discusses his excitement of getting the call to the big club from the Marlies, saying "it means everything to him," and he just wants to play his game and make his mark.

Four years after drafting defenceman Mac Hollowell as a 19-year-old in 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping the time is right for the long-developing defenceman to make the jump into the NHL.

Hollowell’s opportunity comes at a time when the Maple Leafs’ battered blue line desperately needs prospects and depth players to step up in the absence of some of the unit’s biggest stars.

Accompanying Tuesday’s news of Morgan Rielly being placed on long-term injured reserve, sidelining him at least 10 games with a knee injury, was that of Hollowell’s call-up and long-awaited NHL debut. With Jake Muzzin (spine) out indefinitely on LTIR and T.J. Brodie on IR with an oblique injury, the Maple Leafs are getting really thin on the blue line as they approach the all-important quarter-mark of the season.

Hollowell will suit up Wednesday in New Jersey, the first leg of a four-stop U.S. road trip for the Maple Leafs that includes a back-to-back Friday and Saturday. Victor Mete was also called up from the Marlies and will travel with the team.

Getting the nod, Hollowell told reporters on Tuesday, “means everything” to the tenured Marlie, who’s been back and forth plenty between the big club and its AHL affiliate but never dressed.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment since I was a little kid,” Hollowell, who hails from Niagara Falls, Ont., told reporters Tuesday after head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed his place in the lineup. “Just want to make my mark with team, help them win games.”

He’s a mobile right-shot with offensive upside

Hollowell, a right-shot, could fill a lot of needs for the banged-up blue line considering his mobility, offensive upside, and position. He plays a style of game similar to that of former Greyhounds and Marlies teammate Rasmus Sandin, who now in his second full season with the Maple Leafs has an opportunity to step into a larger role – particularly on the power-play unit, in Rielly’s place.

Hollowell, too, has the potential to make an impact on special teams, most likely as a second-unit point man thanks to his ability to distribute the puck effectively. At five-foot-nine, Hollowell doesn’t bring a physical presence but, like Sandin, is a strong two-way player who’s at his best when he’s moving his feet and playing a transitional game. While he doesn’t boast the speed to easily recover if caught chasing the play, his strength as a puck-mover could see him fit right in on the Maple Leafs’ mobile blue line.

Playing on his strong right side, his skillset is well-suited to playing alongside a more physical presence like Jordie Benn or Mark Giordano.

Undrafted in 2017, he’s “always taken the long route”

Hollowell went undrafted in his first year of eligibility in 2017 but earned an invitation to the Maple Leafs’ development camp – a camp that took an unfortunate turn when he suffered a broken leg.

One year later, after healing up and putting up a really strong season with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds that saw him double his 2016-17 production and help propel the Greyhounds to the OHL final, he got his draft moment. The Maple Leafs selected the then-19-year-old d-man in the fourth round, 118th overall, in 2018.

After returning to Sault Ste. Marie for his overage season – and again putting up career-highs across the board to the tune of 24 goals and 77 points in 64 games – the Maple Leafs signed him to a three-year entry-level deal in March 2019 and wasted no time getting him into the mix with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

After first jumping into the playoffs with the Marlies in 2019 and impressing the club early, Hollowell told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox he didn’t get discouraged by what some would view as setbacks.

“Not really, because I’ve always taken the long route,” he said at the time. “The OHL draft, my minor hockey days, it’s always been a work in progress.”

Save for a 19-game stint with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers the following season, he’s been a mainstay on the Marlies’ blue line since.

Hollowell signed a one-year extension with the Maple Leafs last February. His two-way deal is worth $750,000 at the NHL level.

Dubas and Keefe know him well

Before Dubas drafted Hollowell, and even before he invited him to Toronto’s development camp a year earlier, the Maple Leafs GM was well-versed in who Hollowell was as a player and a person thanks to their time in Sault Ste. Marie. It was Dubas, after all, who drafted Hollowell in the 12th round of the OHL draft in 2014 during his final year as Greyhounds GM. Sheldon Keefe was bench boss there at the time.

Keefe got a closer look at Hollowell with the Marlies, where he coached the rearguard for parts of two seasons before he was named head coach of the Maple Leafs.

The list of former Greyhounds to have suited up for the Maple Leafs under Dubas’ tenure is long – Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, Michael Bunting, Matt Murray among them – and Hollowell now adds his name.

Joe Thornton is a big fan

In the late fall of 2020, with the pandemic putting hockey seasons on hold in North America, Hollowell flew to Finland – his first time heading overseas to play pro hockey – to start the season on loan with TUTO Hockey of the Finnish tier-two league. There, he registered six points in six games before returning to North America in December, where he landed in a pretty unique situation: sharing a house with fellow quarantining Maple Leafs Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Rasmus Sandin, and Joe Thornton over the holidays ahead of Leafs camp opening up for the shortened 2021 season.

Over the few months that followed, Hollowell spent multiple stints on the Maple Leafs’ taxi squad, getting an up-close look at the daily pace and routines of life in the NHL. Of course, it also gave him an opportunity to continue bonding with new BFF Joe Thornton – a well-documented friendship between prospect and veteran:

“When I was up there (with the Leafs), he was the guy to take me to the back of the plane and let me hang out with the boys,” Hollowell said of Thornton. “That was huge. He just likes to keep things loose and calm. I tend to overthink things sometimes so he keeps me loose and feeling good. That was good to have.”

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