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.
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.
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