TORONTO — Justin Holl keeps hearing a variation of the same joke. The career minor-leaguer scored a goal in each of his first two NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, so everyone is eager to kid him about keeping “the streak” alive now that he’s finally getting a third.
Except the 26-year-old defenceman is far more concerned about building a games played streak than extending his own piece of scoring trivia. And to do that he need not worry much about what happens in the offensive zone.
“Goals and assists don’t really matter to me,” Holl said before Thursday’s visit by the Dallas Stars. “I just want to objectively play well.”
Just playing is a start.
Holl was scratched for 12 straight games after making the Leafs roster out of training camp. He’s been the eighth defenceman on a blue line enjoying good health. That’s meant a steady diet of bag skates and extra conditioning work until seeing his name written beside Travis Dermott’s on the third pairing before Wednesday’s practice.
“He handled it better than I could have ever imagined myself handling it,” Dermott said of Holl’s approach to the month-long layoff.
They are stepping in for the Martin Marincin-Igor Ozhiganov pairing and joining the lineup at an interesting time. In Mike Babcock’s analysis of a 3-1 loss to Calgary on Monday, the Leafs were outplayed as badly as they have been in any other game this season.
“By a wide margin,” Babcock added.
That makes this opportunity look even better.
On their worst nights, the Leafs have had trouble transitioning the puck and making clean exits from their own zone. If the Dermott-Holl duo plays up to potential, they believe it’s an area where they can make a difference.
“You probably won’t notice us too much and I think that would be a good game,” said Dermott. “I think just getting the puck up to our forwards quick and making sure guys are supported. … If we’re good at that, then we can always keep pushing the offensive stuff. Just making sure we’re doing our defensive duties first.”
The 21-year-old is back in the lineup after missing two games with an illness and a third as a healthy scratch. He’s got a pretty firm grip on a regular spot. Holl’s is far more tenuous, especially with Babcock saying he’s simply mixing in some rest for Ozhiganov because he’s still adjusting to the rigours of the NHL schedule.
The challenge for Holl is working his way into the coach’s good book. He’s a strong skater for a big man, but doesn’t often use his six-foot-four frame to punish opponents physically. Stars defenceman Roman Polak occupied the right spot on Toronto’s third pairing during Babcock’s first three seasons here and believes the veteran coach favours his meat-and-potatoes style.
“I think for a skill guy who wants to be creative it’s a little different because Babs wants everybody to play the same way he wants it, you know?” said Polak. “If you’re me and you know I have a certain role on the team, for me it’s easier to do. He’s just going to tell me what to do and I’m just going to do it.
“If you’re more like a skill guy you can have a problem with him.”
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In Babcock’s own words, he’s looking for players who bring a clear and reliable set of tools he can put to use.
“You have to find a way to create value for yourself,” he said. “Do you win faceoffs? Do you penalty kill? Do you forecheck? Do you shot block? Like what do you hang your hat on?
“You’ve got to have something to hang your hat on, otherwise you don’t get to hang out in the league very long.”
As much as Holl’s known for the two goals he scored on his only two shots for the Leafs last season, that’s not a repeatable skill that will keep him here.
The native of Tonka Bay, Minn., wants to help a forward-heavy team play as much offence as possible — interrupting attacks directed at the Leafs zone and reversing the flow.
It helps that he’s emerged from his string of scratches with a smile on his face. After four seasons in the American Hockey League and one in the ECHL, perspective is easy to find.
“I’ve gone through way more difficult things,” said Holl. “Obviously I played in Indy for a year in the [ECHL]. You know what they say about that — it’s easy to come, hard to leave — that’s the league.
“At this point making it to the NHL is a huge hurdle and then that’s just one more hurdle to climb over. I’m not comfortable just being here, but just being here was the next step. Then obviously the next step is finding a way to play every night.”