The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed defenseman Justin Holl to a three-year contract extension worth $6 million ($2 million AAV), the club announced on Tuesday.
This is a feel-good deal on all sides — and it’s notable that this contract got done on New Year’s Eve with the team currently in Minnesota, Holl’s home state.
Originally a 2010 second-round draft selection of the Chicago Blackhawks, the soon-to-be 28-year-old went unsigned initially and has taken the journeyman’s route to the NHL. The path started with a full season in the ECHL with the Indy Fuel followed by extended time with the Marlies (initially on an AHL deal signed by Kyle Dubas in 2015-16) and then a 2018-19 season with the Leafs where he was parked in the press box as a healthy scratch under head coach Mike Babcock for all but a handful of appearances (11 GP).
This season, his emergence has been a revelation for a Leafs team that would be in dire straits on the right side of their blue line if not for Holl, who has proven himself not only capable of a regular shift at the NHL level but of playing top-four minutes and holding his own against the best players in the game. With Cody Ceci’s history of struggling immensely against top competition in Ottawa and when used in the role in Toronto, combined with Tyson Barrie’s rocky first half of the season in Toronto, the importance of Holl’s emergence on the right side is tough to overstate.
Moved onto a matchup pair with Jake Muzzin prior to Muzzin’s injury, Holl has taken further strides after the re-uniting with head coach Sheldon Keefe, showing a level of confidence and comfortability within 5v5 systems that encourage even more involvement in the attack and freedom to roam as a defenseman.
Holl averaged just 13 minutes of ice time in his first 10 games of the season but saw that steadily climb to 16+ minutes in his next 10. In the 17 games since the coaching change, Holl’s average time on ice has grown to 18:46; he’s a plus-four with four points in that time while skating many of his shifts against top competition at 5v5. On his pairing with Muzzin, Holl has averaged over 54% of the shot attempts and 54% of the expected Goals For.
Holl is a mobile, heads-up puck mover who has grown in his poise and confidence with the puck — both breaking it out and jumping up in the offensive zone — and has consistently played with strong gaps, a good stick, and good competitiveness without the puck this season.
It remains to be seen where his career tracks from here — whether he becomes a top-four mainstay on the team or settles into more of #5 role on the right side — but either way, the value at $2 million AAV over the next three seasons is tough to dislike from the Leafs‘ cap perspective, as is the story of Holl’s stick-to-itiveness and professionalism in order to secure his first-ever multi-year, multi-million-dollar NHL contract at the age of 28.
With Holl signed, the Leafs have at least a little more clarity going forward on their blue line, which could undergo a major reshaping in 2020. All but Morgan Rielly and now Holl are without contracts as of July 1, 2020, with tough decisions to come on Jake Muzzin (UFA) and Tyson Barrie (UFA) in particular, while Ceci is also a UFA and Travis Dermott will need a new contract as a restricted free agent.
The injury to Jake Muzzin, as unfortunate as it is given his role and importance to the team, does provide something of an opportunity to evaluate a sample of life without Muzzin — that could include a look at Travis Dermott in elevated minutes and potentially a quick glance at the likes of Teemu Kivihalme, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren at the NHL level if the club so chooses.