Underrated Justin Holl a Key Part of NHL’s Most Underrated Blue-Line

Feb 1, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl (3) controls the puck against New Jersey Devils during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Tom Horak-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl (3) controls the puck against New Jersey Devils during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Tom Horak-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line has been a team-strength for a couple of years now.

Ever since the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired T.J Brodie and Jake Muzzin, to go along with Morgan Rielly and give them three star players on the back-end, they have been a top team, and had one of the best blue-lines in the NHL.

Unfortunately, Jake Muzzin’s career has been derailed by injuries.  It is unfortunate, because he was much better than expected to start this season (that one game aside) picking up where he left off in last year’s playoffs.

Ironically, the Muzzin injury actually helps the Leafs, who would have traded him in the off-season if it was at all possible to move an expensive, injury prone, declining player, with multiple years left on his contract and a full no-movement clause.

No one wants to see a guy get injured, but moving Muzzin’s $5.5 to the LTIR and moving the inexperienced, but currently more talented, and much cheaper, Rasmus Sandin into his place is a big win for the Leafs overall.

With Sandin and Liljegren on the upswing and more-than-likely on their way to stardom, and Rielly, Brodie and Giordano providing solid veteran play (in Brodie’s case, it’s been a star-level performance all year) the Leafs are still in good shape.

But one player who has really been good over the years, but who get’s no love, is Justin Holl. (all stats naturalstattrick.com).

Toronto Maple Leafs and Justin Holl

If the Leafs do improve their blue-line, Justin Holl is probably the odd man out.  He clearly lacks the star power or the upside that all five other members of the blue-line have.

But at the same time, he is the only big player they have.  He isn’t a monster-body checker by any means, but he’s large, imposing and physical just the same.  He is also right-handed on a team that doesn’t have many players who are.

With Justin Holl on the ice this year, the Leafs possess the puck more than their opponent, and they get slightly more shots.  They have allowed more scoring chances, and thus have an expected-goals rating that is below 50% when he’s on the  ice, but the sample size for the season is still small.

It’s far more important that for three seasons before this, Holl’s Expected Goals ratings were 53%, 55% and 55%.  Those are excellent numbers, and had things gone differently, he could easily have been a top-four defender on a Cup Winning team.

If Holl’s numbers aren’t great this year, it’s likely because he hasn’t had a partner last for more than two or three games.  He has played over 20 minutes with Brodie, Sandin and Muzzin, and over 12 minutes with Rielly and Giordano.

The most interesting thing, and the reason I’m writing this, is that he’s found great success with TJ Brodie for the last few games.

When paired with Brodie, they have a 57% puck-possession rating (great) and have outshot their opponents 34-17 (67%).  They have played to a 63% XGoals rating, and more importantly, are are outscoring their opponent 6-1 (83%) so far.

That level of excellent results won’t (can’t) last, but even if they play to “just” their 63% XGoals rating, they’ll be a top pairing.

Can that last? It might. Justin Holl has three + years of getting great results on a contending team as a top-four defender.  It isn’t all Jake Muzzin (last year Holl did better without him) even if it mostly was.

It’s an unorthodox pairing since both players are used to playing the right side, but so far it has been excellent.  If this pairing remains reliable, it frees Keefe up to pick his spots with the Rielly/Liljegren pairing, getting them out for offensive draws, and on the ice with Matthews/Marner whenever possible.

A third pairing of Sandin/Giordano is ridiculous compared to the vast majority of the NHL, and both players currently have great numbers (55% and 57% X Goals, respectively).

For a team lacking the Dougie Hamilton/Cale Makar/Vic Hedman anchor, this is about as good as it gets.  One reliable pairing you can trust, another to use for offense, and a third pairing that puts up numbers way better than other team’s 3rd pairings.

Keeping in mind that Justin Holl would be the obvious player to upgrade, the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line might actually be perfectly set.  Outside of bringing in an Erik Karlson or some kind of massive upgrade, there really wouldn’t be much point in tinkering.

Leafs Top 10 Prospects. dark. Next

The Toronto Maple Leafs have  a solid 1 through six set of players, they have upside, experience, toughness, and a good mix of scoring and defense.  Justin Holl is a big part of that.