The pair stood in the corner of the practice rink – assistant coach Scott Gordon and defenceman Korbinian Holzer – engaged in a lengthy conversation away from the rest of the group about what had gone wrong the night before.
“Use your stick and body here or here,” the coach appeared to be saying, pushing the young player up against the boards. “And try to keep the puck there.”
The play in question was the Pittsburgh Penguins first goal of the night in a 3-1 loss last week. Veteran Chris Kunitz had outfoxed the Toronto Maple Leafs much bigger blueliner for the puck and dished it quickly to linemate Sidney Crosby, who then made a highlight reel pass to Pascal Dupuis to tie the game with seven minutes remaining.
Five minutes later, the Penguins top line scored again with Holzer on the ice to cap the comeback.
“We just talked about what I could have done differently so it’s just slight adjustments,” Holzer said of his talk with Gordon, noting the staff is also calling for forwards to impede oncoming forecheckers more. “It happens pretty quick out there. But it’s good to know now what other perspectives you can have and maybe do it better next time.
“You’ve got to give them credit, too. Not many players can do that spin-o-rama pass backhand. That’s a pretty sick play and it’s hard to defend.”
A 25-year-old prospect from Germany who has spent the last two and a half years in the minors, Holzer has surprisingly been given a fairly heavy load in his first full NHL season by Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
His most frequent partner has been Dion Phaneuf on the top pair, meaning Holzer has averaged more than 18 minutes a night and faced the likes of Crosby and Co. more often than most first-year players ever would.
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.
The two goals dropped him to minus-9 during the team’s losing streak (0-3-2) and minus-12 on the season in only 22 games.
More tellingly than a figure that can be heavily influence by goaltending, however, is the fact Holzer is ranked dead last among NHL defencemen in a statistic called Corsi, which measures his team’s puck possession when he’s on the ice.
According to advanced statistics website behindthenet.ca, the Leafs are out shot an average of 35-23 for every 60 minutes he is on the ice at even strength.
While Holzer has played well in a substantial role on the penalty kill – where Toronto has remarkably improved to sixth best in the NHL (84.8 per cent) after another perfect night against the Jets – his struggles in tough minutes at even strength appear to have hurt his confidence. (That frustration may have bubbled over against the Jets when Holzer dropped the gloves to fight Evander Kane, only to have a tougher customer in Zach Bogosian choose to take the challenge instead. Bogosian won the scrap handily, teaching the Leafs youngster another lesson in his first NHL fight.)
Complicating matters even further is the fact Holzer signed a two-year contract extension less than two weeks ago, guaranteeing he’ll get an NHL salary – albeit a small one – through 2015.
The organization is hoping he will continue to grow into a solid shutdown defenceman who plays the right side, something they have been lacking after trading Luke Schenn to Philadelphia last summer.
Holzer admitted that making the transition from the AHL to NHL hasn’t been easy when he has faced Crosby, Claude Giroux, Eric Staal and other superstars more than any other opposition forwards.
“I think you’ve got to be aware mentally and physically every second those guys are out there,” Holzer said. “Especially Crosby. He’s the best player in the world right now and you can tell.
“They make you pay as soon as one little mistake is made. They make you pay right away.”