Jake Gardiner Freed – Holzer? We hardly knew ya

After several games of Korbinian Holzer under performing on the Toronto Maple Leafs top two defensive pairings, the big German has been demoted to the American Hockey League. This comes a game after Randy Carlyle made the switch and re-united Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson on the top line.

The bigger news?

This is some fantastic news if you’re a Leafs fan.

Jake Gardiner was one of five plus-possession players on the Maple Leafs last season, and while he exploited somewhat favourable minutes, he did well in them, much like Cody Franson has done on the third pairing for the Leafs this season. For games with the defence struggling it seemed odd to have a healthy Gardiner playing in the minors.

By sitting Mike Kostka for John-Michael Liles last week, Carlyle showed he was willing to at least try putting two lefties together, which culminated in Gunnarsson playing on Phaneuf’s left side. More significantly perhaps, it comes right after No. 5 overall pick Morgan Rielly joined the Toronto Marlies for their playoff run this week. I bet the Leafs want to get a very good look at how Rielly can handle the heavy AHL minutes Gardiner was playing.

The Leafs have shuffled their lines around multiple times in the last two days, but I would guess somewhat on the pairings looking like this for tomorrow’s game:

Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf
John-Michael Liles – Jake Gardiner
Mark Fraser – Cody Franson

Perhaps Kostka goes in for Liles, since in this lineup, Franson is the only righty. Gardiner and Kostka played together in the minors on the Marlies top pairing during the lockout half of the AHL season so perhaps Carlyle keeps them together. It would seem unfair to both Liles, who has played well since returning to the lineup.

(*of note: Gardiner last season played mostly with Luke Schenn, but he saw 253 minutes with Cody Franson and the two had a 53.6% shot differential rate together. He played 93 minutes with Liles, who was Gardiner’s primary partner in Jake’s two-game NHL stint earlier this season)

As for Holzer, he came into this season as perhaps a player from the minor-league system who could hold onto a spot on the third pairing and maybe make the jump up to the second pairing. Well, not exactly the case. Mark Fraser played his third pairing minutes effectively, meaning that the only spot for Holzer was on the first or second pairing.

Alongside Dion Phaneuf this season, the pair allowed 16 goals at 5-on-5 in just under 230 minutes playing alongside each other (think of that as a goals against average of 4.19) and the Leafs took just 40% of the shots when the two were together. During Holzer’s stint on the top-line, the Leafs re-signed Holzer to a two-year, one-way deal.

Given Phaneuf’s successes alongside Gunnarsson, it was easy enough to isolate the problem on the top unit, which frequently sees top competition. Only the pairings of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek in Phoenix and Niklas Hjalmarsson with Johnny Oduya in Chicago see more time against top comp. than Dion Phaneuf according to Corsi Rel QoC. Holzer is 11th in the league, similar to the minutes played by Jay Bouwmeester, Johnny Boychuk and Dan Girardi, but his low Corsi On number stands in stark contrast to other defencemen of that magnitude. 

James Mirtle spelled out Holzer’s struggles more eloquently Sunday

While the rookie can hardly be blamed for all of the Leafs recent five-game losing streak, his significant presence in the lineup has been illustrative of his team’s lack of depth on the back end, something that has been exacerbated by Carl Gunnarsson playing through a hip injury all year and Jake Gardiner curiously relegated to the Toronto Marlies.

Holzer was bumped to a third pairing with John-Michael Liles for Saturday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, but once again two key second period goals were scored by players in his vicinity.

On the first, Jets forward Antti Miettinen was given plenty of time to deftly bat a puck out of midair on the doorstep of the crease.

On the second, Blake Wheeler whipped past Holzer unmolested for a quick wraparound.

Overall, a plus move for Toronto, who have been bleeding shots and scoring chances against this season. The type of defence Gardiner plays is the most effective kind: “have the puck lots so the opponent doesn’t get it”.