Saturday, September 28, 2013

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

Theme: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
-- Winston Churchill

Talk about having had two different seasons.  When Braden Holtby stumbled out of the gate at the delayed start of the 2012-2013 season, Caps fans might have had the thought, “it was nice while it lasted.”  Holtby, who started his career with a 2.02 goals against average and .929 save percentage in his first 21 career regular season games, went 3-4-0, 4.04, .870 in his first seven appearances of the new season.  Yeah, there was a shutout in there, but c’mon.  It was against Florida, a team that won two of their previous nine games in regulation going into that game. 

He looked lost…quite literally.  He was spending as much time trying to find his position in the crease as in tracking and turning away pucks.  Then he started to turn things around.  It was not a flip of a switch, by any means.  It was a three-game stretch in which he allowed eight goals but faced a ton of shots in doing so (107).  He even lost two of those games.  But stopping almost 93 percent of the shots he faced in those games marked a turning point for Holtby.

Only three times in his last 29 appearances of the season (including that three-game turning point) did Holtby allow more than three goals in an appearance.  In those 29 appearances he was 20-8-1, 2.26, .930, with three shutouts.

Overall, Holtby won 23 games in 36 appearances and posted a save percentage of .920 overall.  How many goalies in the last 20 years, age 23 or younger, posted a season with at least 20 wins and a .920 save percentage or better?  Six: Tuukka Rask, Andrew Raycroft, Carey Price (twice), Henrik Lundqvist, James Reimer, and Holtby.  If you are looking at that .930 save percentage in his last 29 appearances and ask yourself how many goalies age 23 or younger over the past 20 years posted at least 20 wins and at least a .930 save percentage in a single season, the answer is “Rask.”  That’s it.

Fearless’ Take…

Let’s extend that conversation for a moment.  Holtby has been in the league for three seasons now, having appeared in 57 games.  In that time seven different goaltenders have been named finalists for the Vezina Trophy.  How does Holtby compare to that group in terms of their respective first 57 appearances in the NHL:

Holtby has more wins and a higher save percentage than any of them, and he is second in goals against average to Henrik Lundqvist (parenthetically, it seems odd that 57 games into his career Holtby has yet to post a “no-decision” in an appearance).  And, he is consistent.  He has those spells when he looks ordinary (or worse), but he avoids losing streaks.  He has not lost three decisions in a row since his third, fourth, and fifth career games in 2010.  And, he has not yet lost three consecutive decisions in regulation in his brief career.  He’s a battler.

Cheerless’ Take…

He does have his moments.  Eighteen goals allowed in his first four appearances in 2012-2013.  Eight in his first two appearances in 2011-2012.  Eleven in three appearances in November 2010.  And it is not as if that is limited to the NHL.  Last year he had a 12 goals in four games stretch in November, 14 in four games in November 2011 and another 14 in four game stretch in December 2011, 19 in five games in February/March 2011.  Then there was the five goals on the first 20 shots he faced in Game 7 of the playoffs last spring.  Then there is that whole wandering thing...

The Big Question… The Next Big Step or the Next Big Stumble?

Braden Holtby’s performance over his first three years in the league compares more than favorably with similar game tracks of goalies who would be Vezina finalists the past three years.  Then again, there are goalies who start fast and fall quickly – Steve Mason won 33 games and a Calder Trophy in Columbus in 2008-2009, but he is 67-81-20 since and is trying to reassemble his career in Philadelphia.  Andrew Raycroft won a Calder Trophy in 2004, but he went 78-87-17 with five teams over the next seven years and played last year in Italy.  Then there is the Caps’ own Jim Carey, a first team all-rookie team goalie in 1995 and a Vezina Trophy winner in 1996.  Three years later, after going 26-35-4 with three different teams, he was out of hockey altogether.

Holtby has been prepared well, at least in the opinion of the Capitals’ brain trust.  As Capitals general manager George McPhee put it, "We think we've developed [Holtby] properly.  We've taken our time. We think he can really have a big year for us."  One could agree with that, given that Holtby served a diligent apprenticeship in South Carolina (12 games) and Hershey (107 games) before assuming the number one duties on a full-time basis last season with the Caps.

None of that, though, is a reliable indicator of future growth, and one area in which he has to break through involves this: 17-20.  That is his win-loss record in the post-season with South Carolina, Hershey, and Washington.  He has played well in those settings (a .912 save percentage with South Carolina in one post-season series, a .931 save percentage in 21 post-season games in Washington), but “great” goalies not only play well, they win at that level of play.  It is, then, still an open question whether the 2013-2014 season represents the next big step for Holtby or, well, something else.

In the end…

Hockey is a young man’s game.  This might be true more for skaters than for goaltenders.  Here’s the thing.  Cam Ward won a Stanley Cup at the age of 21 in 2006.  Since then, the average age of Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders is 29.  The youngest of that group is Marc-Andre Fleury who was 24 years old in 2009 (Holtby just turned 24). 

However, few goaltenders in the last 20 years have compiled an early-career resume as impressive as Holtby’s.  In the last 20 years only five goalies have played in at least 50 games in their first three seasons, had a goals against average of 2.39 or lower and a save percentage of .920 or better: Niklas Backstrom, Roman Cechmanek, Marty Turco, Tuukka Rask, and Holtby.  On the other hand, how many Stanley Cups were won by those other four goalies?  If you said “none,” you are correct.

Holtby has, by any measure, done everything he needs to do as a developing goaltender.  However, now he is the man.  And he has to do more.  He is at the end of the beginning.

Projection: 59 games, 32-18-6, 2.29, .924, 4 shutouts

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Goaltenders: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

Theme: “Comeback is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke

Until goaltender Michal Neuvirth finished 4-5-2 with the Washington Capitals in the 2012-2013 season, he had not finished under .500 for a season since he was 6-7-0 with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2008-2009.  That was his only sub-.500 season as a goalie at any level in his career, going back to Canadian junior hockey… again, until last season.

It was a season that started with hope.  Despite his being injured late in the 2011-2012 season and yielding his starting goaltending job to Braden Holtby for the playoffs, the expectation was that he would battle Holtby for the starting job out of the gate in the 2012-2013 season.

Nice thought, except the gate did not open on time.  The Great Lockout of 2012-2013 meant no training camp for evaluation, no Opening Night start.  By the time the league got around to opening night in January, the die was cast.  Braden Holtby was the number one goalie, and Neuvirth, who might have thought he had fought off his principal goaltending challenge when Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado in July 2011, was on the bench for opening night of the 2012-2013 season. 

Not that Neuvirth did not get a look early.   In his first two games of the season, Holtby…what is the technical term here?  Oh, yeah…stunk.  After allowing ten goals on 73 shots in his first two games (a .863 save percentage), Holtby was shown the bench, and Neuvirth took over with a chance to grab the job as number one goalie by the throat. 

It grabbed him, and not by the throat.  Maybe a bit lower.  In five consecutive starts he was 1-3-1, 2.98, .899.  It was hardly the stuff to inspire confidence that he was the guy.  Holtby returned for two more games and, well, was not very good (1-1-0, 4.00, ,860).  So…back to Neuvirth.  He got two more games.  Well, one and a half.  He lost a 3-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs then was pulled in the 33rd minute of a 5-2- loss to Pittsburgh after allowing two goals on 11 shots. 

Through his first seven appearances he was 1-4-1 (one no-decision), 3.05, .889. That pretty much settled things.  Neuvirth was not going to be the number one goalie in 2013.  In fact, he would not make another appearance for another month, getting mop-up duty in relief of Holtby in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on March 10th.

He did play respectably after that, getting five more appearances down the stretch in which he was 3-1-1, 2.39, .932.  The pecking order was set, though.  Holtby played superbly down the stretch, and Neuvirth proved a capable backup, but a backup, nonetheless.

Fearless’ Take…

Neuvirth has had a career that does not say “spectacular” as much as is says, “steely.”  Until last season he had experienced only one stretch of one season in which he had a sub-.900 save percentage (15 games with Oshawa in Canadian junior hockey in 2007-2008, .898).  He had only the one sub-.500 year in South Carolina.  He has a 34-15 record in the post season in the AHL and NHL with a 2.05 GAA, .924 save percentage and three shutouts.  Elite as a career ceiling might be a stretch, but his combination of technical soundness and a competitive streak hidden under a placid demeanor suggests that 2013 was something of an aberration in his career development.  Keep in mind, he still has only 130 games of NHL experience under his belt. 

Cheerless’ Take…

If you look at the 2009-2010 season – Neuvirth’s rookie season – and the goalies in that class, it’s pretty impressive.  Jimmy Howard, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Bernier, Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider.  Neuvirth played in more games than Schneider, Crawford, and Bernier.  He had a better goals against average than Schneider and Crawford.  He had a better save percentage than Crawford and was only one point behind Schneider.  But that 2.75 goals against average and .914 save percentage doesn’t look a lot different than his career numbers (2.66, .910).  He has not made the progress we’d expect since then, and last season was a step back.

The Big Question… Can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup in 2013-2014?

Neuvirth was the backup for the Caps last season, for all intents and purposes.  He just did not know that going into the season, he being in a competition with Braden Holtby for the number one spot.  This season, it’s different.  Absent injury or the utter collapse of his game, Holtby will be the starter this season, and Neuvirth will be the backup.  Everyone knows that going in.  Neuvirth has endured situations in which he was not the clear cut number one goalie, but it has been a while since his role as backup was this clearly defined.   If he cannot accept the role (and there are probably few NHL goaltenders his age who would “accept” such a role in their minds), can he adapt to it?

Even last season, Neuvirth’s appearances were not quite as intermittent of the sort one might expect in a backup goaltender.  Seven of his 13 appearances came in a nine-game span early in the year.  Then he played in three of four games in mid-March.  This year, with the league returning to an 82-game schedule, he stands to get somewhere between 25 and 35 appearances.  There will be slumps along the way that Holtby is likely to have to deal with, meaning Neuvirth might get more than a game in any given week.  But those instances, quite frankly, are not to be hoped for. 

So, the question is still out there… can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup for 2013-2014?  There is little in his history to suggest a clear answer to that, but his ability to do just that – to give the Caps quality minutes when Holtby needs a breather – will be an important element on whether the Caps fight for a divisional title or struggle on the playoff bubble.

In the end…

There is a disturbing subtext to Michal Neuvirth’s numbers last season.  Against teams failing to make the playoffs he was 3-0-1, 2.21, .927.  On the other hand, against playoff teams he was 1-5-1, 3.01, .900.  That one win came in April against a Montreal Canadiens team that stumbled to a 4-6-0 finish.  He is going to have to step up his production against stiffer competition in what is likely a tougher division in which the Caps play this season.   His history says that he has it in him to rise to that challenge.  The difference this season is that he has to do it on an intermittent basis.  If he can thrive in that role, it would represent a comeback of sorts, and that is, as we have seen, a good word.

Projection: 30 games, 13-9-4, 2.61, .913

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Defensemen: Steve Oleksy

Steve Oleksy

“You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back Jack do it again”
-- Walter Becker, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)

If you look up the word “whirlwind” in the dictionary, you will find that it can mean “a confused rush,” or “something that involves many quickly changing events.”  The last three seasons for Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy might qualify.  In the 2010-2011 season Oleksy split time between the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and the Lake Erie Monsters of the NHL, teams in cities separated by more than 2,100 miles.  In the 2011-2012 season he split time between Idaho and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, teams in towns separated by almost 2,600 miles.

In July 2012, Oleksy signed a free agent contract with the Hershey Bears.  With the National Hockey League in lockout lockdown, the Bears could get full and utter attention by the Capitals’ brain trust in player evaluation.  Oleksy made an impression.  In 55 games he recorded two goals and a dozen assists. But it was another number that might have left a lasting impression: 151.  That was the number of penalty minutes Oleksy compiled in his 55 games.  He had 11 fights with the Bears, four of them against their arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  That brand of feistiness, along with his production from the blue line, earned him a three-year, two-way contract with the Caps in March.

Oleksy hardly found himself out of place with the big club.  In 28 games with the Caps he finished tied for third in total points (9), behind only Mike Green and John Carlson.  He was a plus-9, good for third among defensemen.  He was also third in total hits and was second on the club in fights.  His pugnacious character coupled with his surprising productivity made him a fan favorite in Washington.  Now…if he could just get a real player page at

Fearless’ Take…

What sort of combination of productivity and feistiness did Oleksy bring last season?  If you look at all of the defensemen in the NHL, here is the complete list of defensemen who had at least nine points, finished plus-9 or better, and had three or more fights: Steve Oleksy.  That’s it.  In just 28 games.  And while the club as a whole finished the 2012-2013 season with a rush, the Caps were 19-8-1 in his 28 games with him in the lineup. 

His underlying numbers were pretty good, too.  His Corsi/on-ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was second best among Caps defensemen playing in at least 20 games, and his relative Corsi (on-ice less off-ice) was best on the club among defensemen.  His PDO (sum of on ice team shooting percentage and save percentage) was third, just a few ticks behind John Erskine and Jack Hillen.  And for all the penalties he took (second among Caps defensemen in penalty minutes), he was the club’s best among defensemen at drawing penalties per 60 minutes (source:

Cheerless’ Take…

Small sample size!  Small sample size!!  I heard that somewhere.  I don’t know what it means.  I just know that if I give our nephew Deerless a rifle and he shuts his eyes and plugs a 12-point buck, I ain’t gonna enter him in sharpshooting competitions right away.  I’m going to want to see him do it again.  Here’s what I’d be keeping in mind.  He had no points in his last six regular season games and only one assist in the seven-game playoff series against the New York Rangers.  He was 0-1-1, even in those last 13 games of the season.

The Big Question… What does Act II hold in store in “The Steve Oleksy Story?”

Steve Oleksy goes into the 2013-2014 season in somewhat rare company.  Since the 2004-2005 lockout, seven defensemen played in their second season in the NHL at the age of 28 or older (Oleksy will turn 28 next February):
  • Jan Hejda
  • Kent Huskins
  • Mark Streit
  • Jeff Finger
  • Marek Zidlicky
  • Deryk Engelland
  • Petteri Nummelin

It is not a group with a lot of common elements.  Hejda, like Oleksy, finished with a 1-8-9 scoring line in his first season in 39 games (Oleksy played in 28 games).  His 0.23 points per game in his first season dropped in his second season (0.16), but his career level (0.22 points per game over seven seasons) is consistent with that first season.  Huskins had a rather meager first season on a points per game basis (0.09 in 33 games), but raised that to 0.21 points per game over his seven seasons.  Finger is in the same ball park (0.29 points per game), as is Engelland (0.19 points per game).

Streit is the class of this group in terms of his offense. But what might be noteworthy in his instance is how his offense has dropped off over his last four seasons (from 0.77 points-per-game to 0.56 last season).  For our purposes here, his second season represented a more than doubling of his offensive productivity (from 0.23 points per game to 0.47).  Zidlicky and Nummelin are between the poles of this discussion (0.53 and 0.32 points per game over their respective careers).

What it suggests is that Oleksy might be more Hejda than Streit, more Huskins than Zidlicky.  The thing to note about those seven defensemen is that all of them played in at least 63 games in their second season with the exception of Nummelin, and his problem was missing 18 games to injuries in the 2006-2007 season.  If Oleksy follows in this mold, his second act might not be spectacular, but he would be a contributing player for the Caps.

In the end…

Last season, Steve Oleksy was the very definition of the “pleasant surprise.”  He came out of nowhere to get a sweater every night and provided some timely production with a splash of in-your-face.  He comes into this season penciled in as a third-pair defenseman on the right side.  There is bound to be some lingering apprehension among Caps fans along the lines of “was last year for real?” 

The thing is, though, Oleksy is not just a banger, and he is not just an offensive defenseman.  At least he was neither of the "just" last season.  He was something of both, giving the Caps a dimension they lacked.  Mike Green and John Carlson might, in a certain light, be looked at as “two-way” defensemen (certainly Carlson more than Green), but neither have a pronounced physical dimension to their games.  John Erskine is physical, but has little in terms of offensive development.  Karl Alzner is more of a defensive defenseman who relies on the geometries of the game more than a physical edge.  Jack Hillen is more of an offensive type.  Even going down the developmental chain, it is hard to find a defenseman who brings the combination of abilities Oleksy demonstrated last season.

The operative phrase in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is “last season.”  The object of the exercise this season is to strike a balance between building on that without stepping outside the comfort level of his performance capabilities – of trying to do too much while trying to prove his value to the club.  He’s done that.  He just needs to take last year’s productivity and do it again.

Projection: 65 games, 4-11-15, plus-8

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America