The Toronto Maple Leafs have summoned Korbinian Holzer three times from the American Hockey League this season and each time he has spent the game in the press box as a seventh defenceman.
But Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins believes that when the time is right, Holzer will get his opportunity to play in the NHL.
“I think he's definitely ready for a good audition,” said Eakins. “He's been our best defenceman since Matt Lashoff left the lineup nine games into the season.”
Being so close to playing in the NHL and not getting any game time could be discouraging for someone who's been part of the Leafs organization since 2006, but Holzer see it as all part of the learning process.
“Getting called up is always one of the greatest feelings you can have,” said Holzer. “Just practising with the guys up there, all the guys help you out. It's always nice to be part of that. Practice is a huge thing up there. You try to get used to the speed and get better where you can.”
It's been a patient process for the 23-year-old German, who along with Leafs Nikolai Kulemin and James Reimer are the only three left from Toronto's 2006 draft class.
After being drafted in the fourth round, the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder spent three seasons in Germany with the DEG Metro Stars.
There, Holzer was given plenty of minutes as a young, raw talent. It kept him from having to fight for playing time at the AHL level with the rest of the Leafs prospects. Despite the urge to come to North America, Holzer continued his development overseas and honoured the contract he had with his German club.
“I just played my first year pro in Germany and after the first season I was considering to come over but I was young and had a contract over there,” said Holzer. “The second and third season helped me over there because of the playing time. It was a good thing I stayed a little longer because when I came over I was a little bit more ready.”
Holzer finally joined the Marlies for the 2010-11 season, blending successfully into the AHL.
He led all Marlies players with a plus-10 rating and was one of 12 Marlies called up to the Leafs. He dressed in two games in early November, playing just over six minutes in each but there were obvious parts to his game that still needed work.
“The biggest thing when he came over from Germany was his ability to protect himself,” said Eakins. “He always left himself wide open when playing the puck. But now he protects the puck, retrieves the puck so well and he also protects himself from getting hit.”
This season, Holzer has moved himself into a top pairing on the Marlies blue-line. He plays the most minutes of any Marlies defenceman, spending significant time on the league's second-best penalty-killing unit.
“I play a lot of minutes down here which is huge,” said Holzer. “Coaches have a lot of faith in me which is also huge.”
The German knows his strengths — and role.
“His bread and butter is to shut down other teams top lines and he is rarely going to hurt you defensively,” said Eakins.
“I would say I am more defensive,” added Holzer. “If there's a chance to chip in points I like to take the chance but I take care of my back end first. I think I'm a pretty good penalty killer too. My job is to keep the puck out of my team's net. I'm a defenceman.”
With his role continuously evolving with the Marlies, and four call-ups in less than two seasons, Holzer has been heading in the right direction.
“I feel I'm ready to make the next step,” said Holzer, a restricted free agent at the end of this season. “If I'm NHL-ready we'll see as soon as I get a couple games. I kind of don't like that expression (NHL ready) because I only played two games so far and it's hard to judge.”
But with the Leafs being the healthiest they've been all season, there have been few opportunities to make his case.
With the trade deadline approaching, things could change.
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