The Toronto Maple Leafs have a number of decisions to make in the lead up to the regular season.
At first glance, few would believe Mac Hollowell to be someone nearing Canada’s legal drinking age, let alone going far enough to categorize him as an over-ager.
The native of Niagara Falls, Ontario displays one of the fresher faces amidst the sea of Toronto Marlies’ camp invites, his slight frame leaning more towards that of fellow 2018 pick, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, than someone two years his senior.
Nevertheless, Hollowell – who celebrated his 20th birthday just yesterday – is indeed the oldest selection of the Leafs’ most recent draft class, sharing a 1998 birth year with but one other member. In fact, his advanced age can be held responsible for complicating an otherwise cut and dry blueprint for Hollowell’s future that is now cast in a cloud of uncertainty.
Spending the prior four seasons with Kyle Dubas‘ OHL alma mater, the former Sault St. Marie Greyhound has now attained his eligibility to jump into the pro ranks and ply his craft in the AHL.
Hollowell’s future remains uncertain, but the options lying before him are equally defined and clear; either return for a fifth season in the Soo or join the Marlies and fight for limited space on a logjammed blueline.
Options A and B each exhibit their share of pros and cons.
Hollowell would assuredly slide into a featured role for the Greyhounds upon his return. Only, at this stage of Hollowell’s development, yet another junior stint may serve as too diminutive of a challenge for him, especially considering his recent success at the level.
Hollowell’s 2017-18 stat line of 12 goals and 44 assists figure in as career bests in their respective categories, while his 56 points – also a personal high – are more than double that of his previous year. After flirting with a point-per-game pace, as a defenceman, no less, does the OHL offer him much left to gain?
Not to mention, Hollowell is still ultimately a prospect, one nonetheless in need of tangible game experience to truly improve. Experience, unfortunately, is a commodity the Marlies may be unable to provide.
A trial by fire against professional competition could be precisely what Hollowell needs to ascend to that next level. Conversely, and similar to the dilemma surrounding Rasmus Sandin, the Marlies’ defence corps is undoubtedly the AHL’s deepest from the perspective of talent, leaving few spots, if any, available to the organization’s host of eligible young blueliners.
So, what to do? Well, when asking the man himself, Hollowell projects the image of someone content to place his future in the hands of those who drafted him.
“They’ll obviously know what’s best for me and decide where I go,” Hollowell told me during our conversation following day two of Marlies camp.
“I’ll just continue playing the same way so it’ll be an easy transition.”
Sean Durzi, a fellow 2018 pick, finds himself at a near-identical crossroad as well. The Leafs’ other recent 1998-born flier is, like Hollowell, a right-shooting over-aged defenceman coming off his own offensively successful junior campaign holding AHL eligibility.
Between the two, it’s Durzi who initially appears more suited for an early indoctrination to the professional game in lieu of another go around with his OHL base, the Owen Sound Attack. At least in a physical sense.
The Toronto native measures in at a reasonable 6’0″, dwarfing Hollowell’s admittedly generous height listing of 5’9″ before outweighing him by a good 25 pounds.
Sure, hockey continues to drift further and further away from the use of size as an indicator of readiness, just look at Mitch Marner, but the rigours of a full AHL season are no joke either and the effect it leaves on a body still in the process of adapting to increased physicality must be taken into consideration nonetheless.
“I can only control what I do on the ice,” Durzi explained, following the conclusion of an inter-camp scrimmage in which he looked right at home.
“Just work hard every day and hope for the best in the end and the best situation for myself. The staff and the management here have gone through it and know what’s best for me. I think they’ll make the right decision.”
With his future still undecided, Durzi has instead chosen to shift his focus at Leafs, and now Marlies, camp away from the matters outside his influence and purely towards soaking in however much knowledge his brain will allow, describing the experience as a beneficial one in large part thanks to the extended time he’s spent with the cast of veterans.
As for whether he looks to a particular veteran for an example, Durzi answered quickly, in turn speaking volumes of the positive influence which permeates the Leafs’ dressing room.
“I mean, it’s everyone,” he raved.
“I got paired up with Morgan Rielly at main camp for a little while, and the way he holds himself in the drills, he’s a leader in practice and off the ice, he really holds himself in a way that I look up to. But, it’s everyone. You feed off everyone who’s played pro.”
“John Tavares, after a skate, I’d see him stretching and rolling out for 30 minutes, 40 minutes. After practice. And you take that, and the way they care for themselves, it’s really something I look after”
Debates can rage all day regarding the various asset management implications of wherever Hollowell and Durzi eventually end up. But first, one question seems to have slipped by unasked; how have the pair actually fared when on the ice?
The short answer? Good. Better than anticipated.
Surrounded by a glut of former pros attending camp on a tryout basis, Hollowell and Durzi are two clear standouts, both easily keeping with the pace of simulated game action while exhibiting a poise more suited to the veterans Durzi speaks so highly of.
Hollowell, in particular, has turned some heads with his performance.
Offensively inclined rearguards of his ilk are rarely so calculated in their on-ice approach directly out of junior. In facing instances of sustained pressure, Hollowell routinely declines to panic, using the adequate time he’s afforded as a means of maintaining possession rather than opting for the otherwise perceived “safe play”. These may be tiny details, but they’re precisely the kind that separates hopefuls onto either side of the roster bubble.
“These decisions are not made by someone in my position,” explained Marlies head coach, Sheldon Keefe, when quizzed on what lies ahead for his AHL-eligible prospects.
“Wherever they end up will ultimately be the right place.”
Thankfully, the Leafs have options. And for an organization so bereft of flexibility in years past, problems like these are good ones to have.
Thanks for reading!