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The Maple Leafs Believe in Justin Holl. Now, He Must Reward Their Faith

The Toronto Maple Leafs clearly believe in Justin Holl as an important piece of their blueline. Now is the time for the defender to act like it.
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"Justin's a very important player for us," affirmed Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe following the team's morning skate on Wednesday. 

"And not just because he shoots right." 

It certainly doesn't hurt, though. 

Justin Holl has been the Toronto Maple Leafs' lone right-shooting defenseman through the first 10 games of the 2022-23 season -- a distinction that has afforded the 30-year-old both some extra job security in the early stretch of the schedule as well as a few extra tons of responsibility. 

Is that an entirely fair combination to thrust upon him? Maybe not. But the NHL is rarely ever fair. 

Holl is far from the only Maple Leafs' defenseman to have stumbled out of the gates early on, but he's definitely been the most noticeable, with his puzzling D-zone lapses and overall timidness when handling the puck more or less underlining the team's recent four-game skid that just spanned their entire West Coast road trip.

This isn't news to anyone who follows the team, of course. Holl's struggles have been talked to death in the market, and, frankly, wouldn't be as pressing an issue if he were simply one cog in a larger machine. But circumstances haven't afforded Holl that type of insulation thus far, with injuries to Timothy Liljegren and Jake Muzzin leaving him as the Leafs' defacto penalty kill anchor while his average nightly ice time has ballooned to the third-highest among all Leaf blueliners. 

So far, the results have been bad. Disastrous, even. And the club realistically can't weather them for much longer. 

With Holl at the helm, the penalty kill ranks 22nd in the NHL in terms of efficiency at a mere 75.68 percent. In a little over 160 minutes of even-strength usage to this point, the Maple Leafs have also been out-scored, out-shot, and out-chanced by a significant margin when Holl is on the ice. For a player who once earned his keep with a mobile and possession-heavy style, Holl has struggled miserably to dictate the play, earning a dismal 43.90 percent expected-goal share as of Wednesday morning, while his impact on his team's scoring chances has regressed to an equally troubling 47.09 percent share, too.  

Take into account Holl's deployment, which has seen him start precisely 50 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone throughout these first 10 games, and the crutch of overly difficult usage can't be used as an excuse, either. 

Holl has simply played some seriously less-than-stellar hockey of late, and his inability to tilt the ice even slightly in Toronto's favor has gone from a troubling flaw to a serious issue as the Leafs now hope to get themselves back on track. 

That hasn't shaken the organization's belief in the lanky defender they plucked from the ECHL scrap heap seven years ago. At least, not yet. 

"He (Holl) is one of our top penalty killers," continued Keefe of his embattled blueliner. 

"He's a guy who took two penalties in LA and you could see the difference when we didn't have him to kill penalties. He plays a lot of really tough minutes. You talk about Muzzin and his absence, and he's been a guy who has needed to step up and take on tougher matchups." 

Holl has certainly taken on the tougher matchups Keefe talks about early on. He's just managed to win very few of them, struggling to contain opposing top-sixes while the coaching staff continues to throw him out against them on a nightly basis. 

That shouldn't be a surprise at this point, really. 

Save for a Mike Babcock-induced banishment to the press box for 72 games of his first full NHL season, Holl has been used as a top-four staple for pretty much his entire tenure as a Maple Leaf. After graduating to the big club for good in 2019, Holl has never averaged under 18-and-a-half minutes in ice time aside from that rocky freshman campaign, consistently clearing the 20-minute mark in each of the past three seasons -- including 2021-22 when he spent a five-game stretch as a healthy scratch. 

That really illustrates his standing behind the Leafs' closed doors. Even when Holl does end up on the outside looking in, his removal from the lineup is used as a chance for a reboot rather than a punishment, with Holl resuming his usual hefty role upon completion. 

The team loves this player. Rain or shine, Holl has rarely ever ventured outside the good graces of his coaching staff and front office. The Maple Leafs even opted to expose and ultimately lose an effective top-six forward in Jared McCann to Seattle in the expansion draft two years ago simply to protect Holl, wilfully stripping their organization of multiple useful assets at the NHL and AHL levels in order to keep him around. And, to be fair, Holl has earned that loyalty, for the most part, putting up some extremely favorable underlying numbers in terms of possession and scoring chances throughout his time as a regular NHLer. 

The point of contention is that when those results dip below their usual levels, his usage typically remains the same. 

Few players manage to earn the degree of belief the Maple Leafs have in Holl throughout their careers -- warranted or not. Sometimes, that kind of belief can be blinding. Some would argue it is right now. 

Regardless, the Maple Leafs view Holl as a top-four defenseman in their lineup at the moment and appear ready to deploy him as such for the foreseeable future. Reinforcements in the form of Liljegren's return may be coming to lighten the load as early as Saturday night. But the fact remains that Holl is penciled into a key role in Toronto's attack during what is arguably the most pivotal season in the franchise's recent history. 

The Leafs have done everything they demonstrate their faith in Holl, even as his play has not exactly inspired it. It's up to Holl now to reward it -- or else risk turning a slippery start into a hole impossible to dig out of. 

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