TORONTO– Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle gave Korbinian Holzer some advice when the blue liner was sent back to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
“Keep working, keep playing. Be the best player down here,” said Holzer.
The 25-year-old defenceman finally made the jump to the NHL this season after biding his time with the Marlies for nearly three campaigns.
With only two career NHL games prior to this season, Holzer signed his first one-way contract in July and was expected to move up from the AHL affiliate and give the Leafs a viable option as a depth defender.
Instead, Holzer played a role with similar responsibilities to what he had with the Marlies.
“Little surprising but you can’t think about it, you just go play,” Holzer said about his part with the Leafs. “It was a big jump but I’m happy I got that opportunity.”
Sometimes used on a top pairing with Dion Phaneuf and, often, on the penalty kill, Holzer averaged 19:16 of ice time through the month of February, fourth most of any blue liner who suited up at least nine times that month.
The 6-foot-3, 205 pound defenceman saw a career-high 23:51 on Feb. 7th against the Winnipeg Jets, was third on the team in hits with 51 through 24 contests, and found himself being played in some of the most important moments of each game.
But in March he started to play his way out of the lineup as other blue liners started to play their way back in.
In his last five games before being demoted, which were also five losses in a row for the Leafs, he was playing over two minutes less per night than in February, much of that time lost from the penalty kill, and was caught on the ice for 56% of the 18 even-strength goals scored against in those defeats.
“I had a lot of hits so I think physically I played fine,” said Holzer. “Couple things, I need to be a little bit more aggressive and be better with closing the gaps (quicker).
“(And) reaction time,” he added. “I have to read sometimes, read players off the boards, see back pressure. I think that’s the biggest part, being aware of back pressure.”
Holzer has resumed his role with the Marlies on the top pairing, with the goal of fixing the issues that forced him back into the minors.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to be sent down,” said Holzer.
Along with Holzer’s focus on developing his skills for the next level, he’s recently taken on the responsibility of assisting prospect Morgan Rielly as he gets his first taste of pro hockey.
Since finishing his season of junior the 19-year-old has played in eight games with the Marlies, nearly every shift with Holzer lining up to his side.
“Only thing we asked Holzer to do is communicate with him, and he’s good for that,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. “Holzer’s a character guy and we know he can help (Rielly) on his way. With Morgan coming in, we watched a couple of his games on DVD and we thought it was important to get a good steady guy with him and Holzer’s certainly that.”
Rielly, who was picked fifth overall by Toronto in 2012 for his smooth skating and ability to rush the puck, has benefited from having a stay-at-home D-man beside him.
“He’s a good player, very smart,” said Holzer. ” He uses his speed very well and I make sure to back him up so he feels comfortable rushing the puck.”
Regardless of being demoted, Holzer is still very much on the Leafs radar for the future as they gave him a two-year extension in early March to prove it.
As one of the few defencemen in the system who doesn’t have to go through waivers, the option to bring him back is open. But, Carlyle currently has eight blue liners on the roster, which means Holzer will most likely have to improve his faults and see injuries open up holes to get back this season.
After defeating the St. John’s IceCaps 3-2 in overtime on Friday, the Marlies are 7-1-3 since Holzer’s return.