Maple Leafs scapegoat Justin Holl earning his fair share of criticism
The Maple Leafs defenceman, fairly or unfairly, has often been a punching bag for the fanbase. In these playoffs, the criticism has been valid.
Almost every NHL fanbase has a player they believe gets too much ice time and does too little with it, and for the Toronto Maple Leafs faithful that guy is Justin Holl.
There's no way to quantify fan dissatisfaction, but if you doubt that premise send a message to any Maple Leafs fan you know, or search Holl's name on Twitter. If you are a Maple Leafs fan, you get it.
It's easy to see why the 31-year-old has attracted the scorn of Toronto's supporters because even at his best he rarely delivers dramatic, eye-catching impact. His offensive production is negligible, he's not a huge hitter despite his solid 6-foot-3, 198-pound frame, and he isn't a standout puck mover.
Holl's job is to kill penalties, help his team work out of the defensive zone and soak up tough matchups. In other words, the veteran's primary directive is to take situations that are expected to be bad for the Maple Leafs and mitigate their impact.
During the regular season you could argue that he did that quite well. Despite having the lowest offensive zone start percentage of any Toronto defender who played 15-plus games (36.88%) his on-ice xGF%, scoring chance percentage and high-danger scoring chance percentage were all approximately 53%.
He also led a penalty kill that ranked 12th in the NHL (81.9%) in ice time (245:16), logging 67:06 more than the defender with the second-most minutes (Mark Giordano).
None of this means that Holl was a superstar. Rather, he was doing a difficult job with acceptable results. Because his role was to prevent things from happening rather than making them happen, his mistakes were often visible while his contributions were subtle. That's a good recipe to be disliked by fans.
In these playoffs, the narrative about the big defenceman failing to pull his weight has remained consistent. The difference now is that it's looking a lot more accurate.
Holl had a brutal time in the Maple Leafs' 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night as Toronto was outscored 3-0 when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 with a xGF% of 9.90%.
After that performance Toronto has now been outscored 14-2 with Holl on the ice in this series, including 9-2 at even strength. His minus-7 is tied for the lowest mark in the playoffs with recently eliminated Winnipeg Jets forward Nino Niederreiter.
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe shrugged off questions about what the Lightning have been able to do with Holl on the ice when speaking to assembled media on Thursday night.
“First response would be whether he is on the ice by himself in those situations. I think the answer is, he’s not out there by himself in those situations when he’s getting scored on."
Keefe isn't totally wrong there. Holl isn't responsible for every goal that goes in when he's on the ice. He also has an on-ice save percentage of .757 at even strength in this series, so bad luck is a factor in his results.
There are plays where he's done the right thing and pucks have gone in — like this goal where he recovers from a poorly-timed change and smartly neutralizes Brandon Hagel to prevent a dangerous chance at the net, conceding an Alex Killorn shot from a poor angle.
Even if we acknowledge that Holl has encountered some misfortune, it's clear that he's having a bad series.
He might not be responsible for every goal that happens on his watch, but he played his part in a few. On Thursday alone he had a significant role in the Lightning's first two scores.
Anthony Cirelli's game-tying marker was enabled by an offensive zone entry made possible by Holl's failure to deliver a hit.
The second goal of the game belongs to goaltender Ilya Samsonov most of all, but the way Holl gets turned around allowed a shot on net he had a chance to prevent.
The defenceman didn't receive much blame for the third goal of the game, but it's noteworthy that he got caught trailing Michael Eyssimont behind the net. If the puck had come Eyssimont's way, Holl would've been unable to prevent him from parking it in a wide-open cage.
Holl's fingerprints are on a few Lightning goals beyond his dismal Game 5 as well.
The very first goal of this series included the 31-year-old getting completely outmaneuvered by Corey Perry then losing a net-front battle with Pierre-Édouard Bellemare.
One thing Tampa Bay has done extremely well in this series is get chances in tight. That's not an indictment of Holl alone, but one of Toronto's biggest, strongest defenceman bears some responsibility for a Lightning goal chart that indicates they are continually winning battles in front of Samsonov.
Perhaps the worst goal Holl bears significant responsibility for is a Game 2 marker from Ian Cole — a 34-year-old defenceman who's never scored more than five goals in any of his 13 NHL seasons.
Holl looked truly pylon-like as Tampa Bay's stay-at-home defenceman cut across the crease with impunity.
Keefe has a point about Holl not being the only culprit in defensive breakdowns when he's on the ice. At the same time, he's not doing much to slow down Tampa Bay's offence in the series. When slowing down your opponent's most dangerous players is essentially your only job, that's a problem.
For much of the season you could've made an argument that Holl's quiet, unremarkable brand of hockey was unfairly maligned in Toronto— but the tables have turned.
Based on what we've seen in the last five games, Maple Leafs fans that want to see Holl out of the lineup are probably on to something.