“Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.”
-- William James
Braden Holtby came from modest beginnings as draft picks go, taken in the fourth round by the Washington Capitals (93rd overall) in the 2008 entry draft, the tenth goalie taken in that draft. His rise through the development ranks was swift enough. A final year of Canadian junior hockey, a split season with the AHL Hershey Bears and ECHL South Carolina Stingrays, a split season with the Bears and the Capitals.
Then, in 2011-2012, it appeared Holtby might just spend his entire season with the Bears, the Caps having signed goaltender Tomas Vokoun on a discount free agent contract. It was not to be, though. Holtby played only seven regular seasons games with the Caps, but when both Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were injured late in the season, the responsibility for manning the nets for the post-season fell to Holtby.
It was an opportunity he grabbed by the throat. In 14 post-season games over two series, Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Both numbers were ranked third among playoff goaltenders.
His 2012 playoff performance set Holtby up as the Capitals’ likely number one netminder for the 2012-2013 season. He filled that role, leading the team’s goalies in appearances (36 of 48 games), posting a .920 save percentage, a good (tied for 14th in the league), if not great number. Underneath that number, though, Holtby recorded a .931 save percentage at even strength, tied for sixth among goalies appearing in at least 30 games. His post-season did not rise to the level of that in 2012, but it was good nonetheless – a 2.22 goals against average with a .922 save percentage. The bitter pill he had to swallow was allowing five goals on 27 shots in Game 7 of the first round playoff series against the New York Rangers in a 5-0 loss.
The way the 2012-2013 season ended led to questions about Washington' goaltending to start the 2013-2014 season, putting Holtby squarely in the crosshairs of attention. His start was uneven. Over his first 24 appearances through December 7th he had a decent enough save percentage (.923), but his 2.71 goals against average ranked him in the bottom half of qualifying goaltenders, a product of his having to face 35.1 shots per 60 minutes. Still, something was not right. Head coach Adam Oates chose to implement a change among his goaltenders to have them play deeper in net, a change that led to the firing of goalie coach Dave Prior in August when he refused to implement the changes. The change seemed (and ended up being) incompatible with Holtby’s temperament and aggressive style.
Holtby’s game deteriorated through December and into the new year. In ten appearances from December 10th through January 30th he was 2-4-1, 3.77, .863. His number one job was in jeopardy. He rebounded thereafter, though. Starting on February 6th against Winnipeg, Holtby went on a four game winning streak that propelled him to a 8-2-2, 2.48, .927 finish, but the lingering doubts, given that poor stretch in December and January, led the club to go after another goalie at the trading deadline. The Caps traded backup goalie Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Rostislav Klesla to Buffalo for goalie Jaroslav Halak and a 2015 third round draft pick. Halak ended up getting a large share of the work, appearing in 11 of 13 games from March 8th through April 4th.
When the season was over, the Caps’ goaltending situation was murkier than when the season started. The fog was lifted when the Caps made changes in hockey operations, relieving general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates of their responsibilities. Then, the Caps traded Halak to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick in the 2014 entry draft. When the Caps signed Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters in July as a backup, It appeared that finally, the number one job belonged to Braden Holtby.
Over the past four seasons, among goalies appearing in 100 or more games and playing in each of the four seaosns, Braden Holtby is tied for eighth in save percentage (.919). And that is quite a neighborhood. He is tied with 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky and is one percentage point ahead of 2014 Vezina finalist, and former Capital, Semyon Varlamov. Keep in mind that his career save percentage before 2013-2014, and all the tweaking of his game by the coaching staff, was .923. That would have put him tied for fourth in save percentage, with Tim Thomas and just a couple of points behind Henrik Lundqvist. Among goalies appearing in at least 100 games over the past four seasons, the span of Holtby’s career to date, only Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has a better winning percentage (.611) than Holtby (.571). Wins might not be the best way to evaluate a goalie, but it is the object of the exercise. Holtby wins.
When Holtby was good, he was very good, but when he was bad… Only Devan Dubnyk, playing for Edmonton and Nashville, had more games allowing five or more goals (8) than Holtby (7) last season. That was as many as he had, combined over the first three years of his career. He has allowed five or more goals in 14 of 105 career appearances, that’s once in every 7.5 games.
The Big Question… Is Braden Holtby an elite goaltender?
Growing pains and odd coaching decisions have combined over Holtby’s four seasons to provide only glimpses of what might be possible. And, it is the glimpses that strike an ominous chord. Those stretches of brilliant play have been too brief and accompanied by too many stretches of indifferent or inconsistent play to allow one to answer the question in the affirmative. But let us remember where we are with Holtby. He has 105 games of regular season experience, not exactly a deep resume to date. How does he compare to top-shelf goalies in their first 105 NHL games? Here is a summary:
Holtby compares rather favorably with this group. That is not to say that he will win Vezina Trophies (Lundqvist, Bobrovsky, Rask) or win Conn Smythe Trophies (Quick). But he is on a similar early-career arc.
In the end…
The job is all Braden Holtby’s now. Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Tomas Vokoun, Jaroslav Halak. All the competition is gone for the time being. The roles on the 2014-2015 editions of the Capitals are set. Braden Holtby is the number one goaltender, and Justin Peters is the backup. So far, Holtby has performed well in chunks and in stretches of games. The goal now is to piece those chunks and stretches together over a season, to do it when called upon for 55-65 games. Last year, when 16 goalies appeared in at least 55 games, Holtby appeared in 48 contests. It is time to step up and begin to be now what he will be hereafter, the number one goaltender for the Capitals.
Projection: 59 games, 30-19-8, 2.40, .924, 5 shutouts
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America