It began, as these stories always do, in a small Bavarian town known by a name I will not attempt to spell. A decade ago, Korbinian Holzer faced Marcel Mueller for the first time.
As 14-year-olds the two future Marlies met and pretty well instantly became estranged at a tournament in their native Germany. “He was the biggest defenceman and I was among the biggest forwards so we saw a lot of each other,” Mueller said Tuesday.
For lack of a snappier name, the two are known locally as The Germans which doesn’t exactly leap off the tongue.
What else do you call two players who room together, share the same home country and little else?
The looming question is will they share a dressing room next year. The Marlies begin a best-of-five playoff with the Rochester Americans with a home date on Thursday. If Mueller and Holzer are roommates again next year, it will mean Marcel Mueller had a wiz-bang of a playoff
Discount Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, two players who showed themselves NHL-ready last season and will finish off their rookie campaigns with a post-season stint in the American league.
No other Marlie is as ready to step into the league as the 24-year-old-Holzer. Marlies coach Dallas Eakins pairs the six-foot-three, 205-pounder with six-foot-four rearguard Mark Fraser. The two are the go-to tandem for the league’s best defensive team.
In 67 games Holzer scored just once and finished with 20 points so his offensive upside is, to be charitable, a little lacking but a +7 is excellent for a player who always draws the opposition’s best.
While it took him a year to grasp all the angles and necessities of smaller ice, the more compact surface works well for Holzer. He tends to hang on opposing forwards like a cheap and sometimes thorny suit.
“It was never a stretch for me to play a physical game,” he said. “The problem in Germany is that the officials sort of take that away. If a guy is hurt, no matter how clean the hit is, the player gets a penalty.”
Holzer was chosen by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2006 entry draft.
Mueller is from Berlin. At six-foot-three 232 pounds, he has the ideal build for a power forward.
Mueller is thick and farmer strong and, for his size, a remarkably good skater. He has a powerful and accurate shot.
“The first bunch of times you see him you think he’s in the wrong league,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “You think this guy should be in the NHL.”
He still could be. A free agent signed by Leafs GM Brian Burke in 2010, Mueller has yet to learn what former Leafs GM Pat Quinn used to call the essential tool in the hockey player’s arsenal: the ability to consistently bring premium effort and attention on most every night.
Mueller scored 14 goals this season and last and while his 47 points in 72 games is more than respectable, there is much more to be tapped.
Mueller can and has played physically but he agrees it is an element he has to improve on. His attention wanders.
“Over seventy six games, it’s going sometimes going to be hard to find motivation,” he admits.
Mueller’s opportunity is now. Like Holzer he will enter the off-season as a restricted free agent. The Leafs are crying for a third line winger who can grind. If you gave, say… Mike Brown Mueller’s build and skating stride you would have a nightly weapon.
The Leafs still may. That final skill, consistency, can arrive suddenly and with management free to watch and note his development, Marcel Mueller might yet grind his way into the hearts and minds of his employer.
“A lack of motivation isn’t something that will happen in the playoffs,” Mueller says.
“Every year,” Eakins says, there are players who surprise you in the post-season.”
Holzer will only surprise if he falters. Should Marcel Mueller find his game in the rarified atmosphere of the playoffs, there may be a German re-unification after all.
Two notes on this blog. First, word on any spelling or factual errors is always welcome. My readers are my editors. Second, all comments are welcome but remember…abuse is not nice.