-- William Safire
Back on February 2nd of this year, during a national broadcast of the Washington Capitals game against the Detroit Red Wings, then Caps general manager George McPhee was reported to have said that the Capitals would have ten more points with better goaltending.
Think about that. In Game 56 of the season, meaning 110 standings points would have been contested to that point through the previous 55 games, Capitals goaltenders were responsible, from a lack of being better at their craft, for costing the team almost ten percent of the standings points available.
Quite an indictment. And, if you are recognized as the number one goaltender among this motley crew, the crosshairs of that comment are trained on your sweater logo. That number one goaltender, Braden Holtby, was diplomatic in his response:
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. I think if we pay any attention to comments like that it brings the team apart. So us in here that are going to go out on and play on the ice, we can’t focus on that type of stuff. We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal of winning games and we don’t want to be separated by things like that, so it’s in one ear and out the other and we’ll focus on the next game.”
You could say, though, that whether coincidence or not, Braden Holtby was a different goaltender after those comments than he was before them.
- Before February 2: 15-13-2. 3.00, .909, 2 shutouts
- After February 2: 8-2-2, 2.48, .927, 2 shutouts
All told, Holtby finished 23-15-4, 2.85, .915, with four shutouts. If you are keeping score, that was 20th among league goaltenders in wins, 41st among qualifying goalies in goals-against average, tied for 23rd in save percentage, and tied for 11th in shutouts. It was not a terrible year, but neither was it stellar. It certainly was not what the Caps or Caps fans might have expected from a young goaltender who had a regular season record coming into this year of 37-16-4, 2.39, .923, with seven shutouts, and who had an even better goals-against average (2.04) and save percentage (.931) in 21 post-season games.
Two things come to mind has having significant influence on Holtby’s season. Neither were of his making. The first was an idea hatched by the coaching staff that Holtby had to curb his more aggressive tendencies and play deeper in the net. Not “Henrik Lundqvist-deep,” but deeper. As goaltenders coach Olaf Kolzig put it back in December…
“The game today is a lot more East-West than North-South. We felt a lot of the goals in the league are coming from passes made through the slot, back door plays, and so what we try to get our goalies to do is to play a little flatter, as opposed to squaring up on the shot. The old philosophy was to establish your ice and retreat back as the play is coming toward you. I’m from a generation when a defenseman could hook and hold and you could focus on the puck carrier. You can’t do that anymore. It’s more open, so goalies have to sit back and evaluate what’s in front of them. Now we want the goalies to read the play and instead of coming out back to in, you’re staying deep, reading it, and going from in to out.”
But was it Kolzig implementing a strategy of his own or implementing one imposed upon him? Fast forward to April, when it was reported that the change was a product of what then head coach Adam Oates saw in Lundqvist when the Caps faced the Rangers in the 2013 playoffs. Oates was quoted thus…
“…goaltending was inconsistent last year, too. That’s why we made changes. But at the end of the day, I like a lot of things about Holtby’s game, I do. But like everybody, he’s got holes in his game. I need him to be a little more consistent.”
Consistency was precisely what the Caps did not get from Holtby over the first four months of the season. Then, as it became apparent that at best this would be a long-term project and at worst simply contrary to Holtby’s style and personality in the crease, he switched back with the help of Kolzig…
“…we realized I had to go back to where my natural instincts led me. We did that as a goalie-goalie coach tandem and I think toward the end of the season it paid off.”
The results after February 2nd suggest it was the move to make.
The second thing that had a significant influence on Holtby’s season was a product of simple arithmetic. Of 63 NHL goaltenders playing more than 1,000 minutes this season only four faced more shots per 60 minutes than Holtby:
- James Reimer 36.8
- Robin Lehner 35.3
- Jonathan Bernier 34.8
- Craig Anderson 33.6
- Braden Holtby 33.3
We would note that of the top-15 goaltenders from this group in shots faced per 60 minutes, only three played for teams making the post season (Semyon Varlamov, Carey Price, and Sergei Bobrovsky). Holtby simply faced too much rubber to have an effective season (goal against average, wins), no matter how efficient he might have been stopping pucks (save percentage).
Fearless’ Take… Of 29 goaltenders playing in at least 40 games this season, Braden Holtby finished eighth in even strength save percentage (.928). Even though his save percentage was not as impressive while shorthanded – 19th among those 29 goaltenders (.867), only two goaltenders faced more shots against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time than Holtby’s 54.1 shots (Jonathan Bernier, 54.9; and Semyon Varlamov, 54.8).
Cheerless’ Take… Odd season for the Caps, and maybe none more odd than Holtby’s. The Caps struggled at even strength, but Holtby had a good save percentage at even strength. Caps had one of the league’s best power plays, but Holtby had the third worst save percentage among those 29 goalies playing at least 40 games when his team was on the power play (.843), and no goalie gave up more shorthanded goals (8).
Odd Holtby Fact… Three of his four regular season shutouts came against teams that made the post season: November 1st at Philadelphia, January 25th at Montreal, and April 13th against Tampa Bay. The shutout against Tampa Bay was one of three games this season in which both goaltenders did not allow a goal in regulation or overtime.
Game to Remember… February 8th versus New Jersey. When the Capitals and the New Jersey Devils took the ice at Verizon Center on February 8th, it was as two desperate teams looking for momentum heading into the break for the Winter Olympic Games. Both teams had 61 standings points, the Devils holding the standings advantage in 12th place by virtue of having more wins in regulation and overtime.
Holtby kept the Caps in the game early, stopping all 11 shots in the first period while his teammates managed only six shots on Cory Schneider at the other end of the rink. Holtby continued his strong play into the second period, shutting the Devils out on eight more shots, but Schneider was up to the task at his end, stopping all ten shots he faced. It would be Schneider that cracked, though, in the third period. Julien Brouillette notched his first NHL goal 10:50 into the period, but the Caps were not out of the woods. Holtby held on and kept his net clear of pucks until the last two minutes when the Caps would score two empty net goals, giving Washington a 3-0 win heading into the Olympic break and lifting them over the Devils and into a tie with Columbus and Ottawa for ninth place in the East, one point behind eighth-place Detroit.
Game to Forget… October 26th versus Calgary. Goaltenders get chased. It happens, whether your name is Patrick Roy or Patrick Labrecque. But to get pulled twice? In barely three weeks? Against the same team? It happened to Braden Holtby in October. The first yank came in the Capitals’ home opener against the Calgary Flames when he allowed three goals on 11 shots in 16 minutes of play. The Caps bailed Holtby out of that one, coming back from that 3-0 first period hole to win, 5-4, in a Gimmick. Holtby was not so fortunate when the Caps visited Calgary at the end of the month.
When the teams met on October 26th, Calgary scored on their second shot, just 64 seconds into the game. Then they scored on their 10th shot at 7:24. The Caps halved the lead at the 12:02 mark and seemed to stop the bleeding. Just 48 seconds later, though, the Flames worked the puck around the perimeter, eventually to the stick of former Capital Dennis Wideman. From the right point Wideman floated a shot at the net that Mike Cammalleri deflected past Holtby, the Flames had their two-goal lead restored, and Holtby was given the rest of the evening off. In two games against the Flames Holtby allowed six goals on 25 shots (a .760 save percentage) in 29:10 of total ice time.
In the end…
Watching Braden Holtby play is not for the faint of heart. He is an aggressive, risk-taking sort of goalie whose wandering and puck handling can get him into trouble. But he plays with a fire about him that fans like and that seems to inspire teammates. This year, his coaches took a garden hose to that fire, and it resulted in two-thirds of a lost season. When Holtby returned to his comfort zone, he was more effective. It was not enough to lift the Caps into a playoff spot, but it did suggest that Holtby’s problem was less a sophomore (or whatever class he is in) slump as much as iffy management. We are left to wonder if he is out of the woods in terms of a return to a happy progress in his developmental arc, or if there will be remnants of this season that will affect his play going forward. That is an issue to ponder another time. For this season, though, the results were as much mixed-up as mixed, one in which the obvious (that he was having a poor year) was not necessarily true.
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