TORONTO – Korbinian Holzer's first cup of coffee in the NHL lasted only 22 games.
Vying to get back there again this season, the 26-year-old is jostling for one of the final spot(s) on the Maple Leafs defence. One job, perhaps two, figure to be up for grabs, likely to be decided in the coming days by a group that includes a vet in the twilight, a youngster on the rise and Holzer, who spent all of last season with the Marlies in the American Hockey League.
"That's what you've worked for all your life, to play in the NHL," Holzer said. "And if you get the opportunity to get up for a sniff, you get in there and you learn what it takes, you don't want to go back."
Competing most prominently with him for that privilege are 35-year-old Henrik Tallinder, Marlies standout Petter Granberg, and a handful of long-shots, mostly from inside the organization.
Tallinder, on a pro tryout, is trying to extend what's been a dependable NHL career of 678 games, mostly served in Buffalo. In question is whether he has anything left in the tank; his mobility appeared limited during the opening two days of camp.
"I'm too old to change my game so I'm just going to try to play like I've always done," he said.
The 6-foot-3 Tallinder struggled some in his return to the league-worst Sabres last season, but performed capably in a depth role with the Devils in 2013 – he signed there for four years and nearly $14 million in 2010. His value would lie in experience and what head coach, Randy Carlyle, termed as "moxie" and a "calming" presence.
"We feel in our research with Tallinder, there is a possibility that he could make our hockey club and play against some top lines," Carlyle said, positing an (unlikely) idea of the Swede alongside Roman Polak in shutdown capacities.
Younger and spryer than Tallinder, who won silver with Sweden at the Sochi Olympics, is an upward moving countryman. Granberg made the jump to North America last season and impressed those within the organization with an authoritative and hard-hitting defensive game.
During scrimmage on the first day of on-ice workouts over the weekend, the 22-year-old jostled repeatedly with Joffrey Lupul, trading shoves and hacks with the team's alternate captain. "He plays that way," said Carlyle. "He gets in people's face and he doesn't really care who it is. He has an assignment and a job to do out there. He's a physical defenceman. That's one of the assets he brings to the table and that's one of the things we like about him."
But is he ready, after one year of hockey on this side of the globe, to make the jump?
Now an assistant to Carlyle in Toronto, Peter Horachek helped develop a flock of capable defencemen in Nashville, including Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Roman Josi and current Leaf, Cody Franson. His gauge for measuring whether a young defender is ready for the NHL is as much mental as it is physical.
"Mentally," said Horachek, "a lot of times is more important than physically. They can handle the big bodies, but are they mature enough to handle it?"
One job, in theory, is up for grabs. That may change if Stephane Robidas is not ready to start the season. The 37-year-old, who is recovering from a broken right leg, has been skating separate from the two groups at training camp, hopeful to debut late in the exhibition season, if at all before the Oct. 8th opener.
Assuming his full health, the Leafs are really in the hunt for a seventh (and mostly extra) defender, but someone who could step in if the need arises.
Granberg, who has played only one season in the AHL, may not be the best fit for that kind of role. His development, along with long-shots like Viktor Loov, Tom Nilsson, Stuart Percy, and Andrew MacWilliam, is probably better served with regular game action and not a recurring seat in the press-box (though that changes if Robidas is not ready).
That leaves Holzer and Tallinder as the likelier and perhaps more logical options.
Unlike Granberg with whom he played alongside last season, Holzer has experience NHL experience (however brief) and his development – he's played four seasons with the Marlies – wouldn't be stalled with irregular duty.
A fourth round pick in 2006, his first NHL stint saw him thrust almost immediately onto the top pairing and he struggled, predictably. "Obviously there was some positive, there was some negative," said Holzer. "I learned my lesson playing up there, playing against the best players in the league."
Holzer wouldn't be required (in all likelihood) to play minutes of that weight again and could prove capable in a depth capacity that would surely include opportunity on the penalty kill.
And the Leafs may need the additional help. The club, which added Robidas and Roman Polak in the summer, was fortunate to endure last season without any significant injuries on defence. Their depth, which consists of mostly of untested minor league products beyond Holzer and Tallinder, could well be tested if injuries do crop up in the coming year.
Auditions are underway.
"I hope I can show as best as I can," said Holzer, "and maybe be able to grab a job."