When I was younger I played junior hockey for a couple of seasons. Not at the OHL level, mind you, but a lower level. Junior C, mostly. My first season in junior hockey I split my time between two teams in different levels. While I enojoyed getting additional playing time by going back and forth between two teams, I did find it frustrating having to adjust my game based on my coaches' expectations.
At the higher level, I was considered much lower on the teams' depth chart, and received ice time accordingly. I found it frustrating having to sti and watch for stretches of the game and towards the end of the game, when the coach would rely on his more experienced defenceman.
At the lower level, I would get significant amounts of playing time, since at that level the coaches considered me to be one of our team's top defenders, and they entrusted me in all situations. But while that was nice, there was still some frustration because I felt as if I should be playing for the team at the higher level full time.
Because of that first-hand experience, I can understand to an extent what Korbinan Holzer must be going through this season, having been shuttled back and forth between the Toronto Marlies and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Holzer has been an invaluable contributor to the Leafs organization this season; taking on key roles and being relied upon as a #1 defeceman in the AHL, and coming up and watching from the press box to cover for injuries to other defenceman in the NHL.
Holzer finds himself occupying the dreaded "tweener" role; caught between two where he seems to be too good to remain in the AHL, but at the same time he hasn't yet established himself as an NHL player yet.
Holzer's accomplishments to date in the AHL, and the promise that he still holds at the NHL level, sees him land at #15 on our list.
Holzer was drafted in the 4th round of the 2006 Draft, a big, mobile defensive defenceman playing as an 18 year old for EC Bad Toelz, a team playing in the Second Division of the German hockey league. Regarded as a long-term project, Holzer figured to need quite a bit of time to develop as a player before the Maple Leafs could realistically consider bringing him over to North America, that is if he ever came over.
After one more season in the 2nd Division of Germany (with Regensburg EV) and three seasons in the top German division (with DEG Metro Stars), Holzer emereged into the conscious of the average Leafs fan when he was granted the honour of representing his country and competing against the very best in the world at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Holzer earned a contract from the Leafs and would come over to North America for the 2010-11 season, joining a group of young Maple Leafs prospects working their way throuhg the Leafs' developmental pipeline.
A rash of injuries to defenders at both the NHL and AHL level gave Holzer an opportunity which he made the most of. Holzer was the most reliable defenceman on the Marlies in his first season in North America, appearing in 73 games in the AHL and adding 3 goals and 10 assists while finishing a team-best +10. He also made his debut in the NHL, appearing in 2 games for the Leafs in the middle of the season.
This year, Holzer had found himself spending as much time on the Gardiner Expressway, shuttling back and forth betweent the Ricoh Coliseum and Air Canada Centre, as he has been on the ice. Once again Holzer has assumed the role of #1 defenceman for the Marlies playing in all situations, and he has contributed 1 goal and 7 assists in 35 games. He has also been recalled multiple time to provide depth for the Leafs, but to date has not seen any NHL action this season.
Holzer's status as an RFA this summer means the Leafs will need to make a decision on Holzer's future sooner rather than later. He remains exempt from waivers for one more season beyong this one, and with the likely departure of both Jeff FInger and Matt Lashoff as UFAs, there will be a need on the Marlies next season for a proven veteran to provide steady leadership to the younger defenceman making their way through the system. Holzer has established himself as this sort of player, but also one that needs an opportunity to prove he can belong at the next level.
Holzer turns 24 this February, andter six long years of development Holzer has matured into a player that may be about to realize his potential as an NHL player.
The panel was quite split on Holzer's place in the Top 25, with votes ranging from 10 to as low as 21. Chemmy and birky both cast votes at what would be his actual position in the countdown, at #15. JP Nikota explains the reasoning for casting the first vote for a player in the Top 10.
When ranking the Leafs' top prospects, the first question I asked myself was 'how close is this player to landing a regular NHL job?'. While prospects like Greg McKegg or Jesse Blacker may eventually play a larger role on the team, they are more than likely going to have to develop for another year or so before getting their first cracks at the bigs. Korbinian Holzer is unlikely to surprise anyone and take away the job of one of the Leafs' current defenders, but an injury or a trade would certainly open up a window for him to start getting into some NHL games (though he did get into two games last season).
That Holzer will turn 24 in about a month means that he will likely have to make the team in the next year or so, or else be relegated to the minor leagues for the majority of his career. I can't think of an NHL defender that didn't get their start until they were 26, and then went on to have a long tenure in the NHL.