“When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.”
-- Gustav Mahler
Maybe it’s the…turkey. Braden Holtby has appeared in 178 regular season games in his five-year career. He really has two different performance profiles, separated by, of all things, Thanksgiving. In 41 career games before Turkey Day, Holtby is 19-15-5, 2.65, .914, with two shutouts. After the bird, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, he is 82-36-13, 2.38, .923, with 18 shutouts.
Things were not much different in 2014-2015. Before Thanksgiving, Holtby was 7-5-3, 2.28, .915, with one shutout. He did not win more than two consecutive decisions in 16 appearances. After Thanksgiving was another story. Holtby was 34-15-7, 2.20, .925, with eight shutouts, and seven times in his 56 appearances he had three consecutive wins.
It started with his going on a tear in December. After going 1-2-0 in three appearances after Thanksgiving, Holtby had a 19-appearance span, from December 4th through January 14th, in which he went 14-1-4, 1.88, .938, with three shutouts, one of those wins being a 33-save effort in the Caps’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at Nationals Park. Only twice in his last 54 appearances of the season did Holtby lose consecutive games in regulation, losing three in a row, February 22-27, then losing consecutive games in regulation, March 11-13.
Holtby’s 2014-2015 season was one that Caps fans might have drawn up, if not anticipated. He struggled some early, perhaps owing to a new goaltending coach, Mitch Korn. However, the light came on over Holtby’s head in terms of what wisdom Korn was imparting after that sluggish start, and coupled with his own natural development as a still-young goaltender, he pieced together one of the best seasons by any goaltender in 2014-2015. He finished among the top netminders in the league in a variety of categories:
- Games: 73 (1st)
- Minutes: 4,247 (1st)
- Wins: 41 (T-2nd)
- Goals Against Average: 2.22 (5th)
- Save Percentage: .923 (8th)
- Shutouts: 9 (T-2nd)
- Save Percentage, even strength: .929 (10th; minimum: 41 games)
- Save Percentage, shorthanded: .889 (8th, minimum: 41 games)
It was a season that was eerily similar to the season Olaf Kolzig had for the Caps in 1999-2000, his Vezina Trophy-winning year:
It was also a season in which Holbty set or nearly set a number of club records:
- Games: 73 (T-1st, Kolzig 1999-2000)
- Wins: 41 (T-1st, Kolzig 1999-2000)
- Minutes: 4,247 (3rd)
- Goals Against Average: 2.22 (2nd, minimum 50 games)
- Save Percentage: .923 (1st, minimum 50 games)
- Shutouts: 9 (T-1st, Carey 1995-1996)
In putting together his season, Holtby became just the third goaltender since the 2004-2005 lockout to appear in at least 70 games, post a goals against average of less than 2.25, finish with a save percentage of at least .920, and record nine or more shutouts (Miikka Kiprusoff in 2005-2006 and Martin Brodeur in 2006-2007 were the others).
Best goals against (1.71), best save percentage (.944), second best even strength save percentage (.943), best shorthanded save percentage (.947). And still, with all that, Holtby still finished just 6-7 in the post season last spring. He is the only goaltender in the post 2005-2006 era to have appeared in at least 20 postseason games, posted a goals against average of less than 2.00 (1.92) and a save percentage of better than .930 (.936). And, he has two shutouts on top of that. And still, his win-loss record is 16-18.
And if anything, his second round performances have been better than his first round games. In first round playoff games, Holtby is 10-10, 1.97, .935, with one shutout. In second round games he is 6-8, 1.85, .937, with one shutout. The Hockey Gods owe Braden Holtby.
As long as we’re talkin’ playoffs, cuz, maybe what the Hockey Gods owe is for the Caps to close out series in five or fewer games. In Games 1-5 across five postseason series, Holtby is 13-11, 1.78, .941, with two shutouts. In Games 6 and 7 over those same five postseason series, he is 3-7, 2.26, .922 and no shutouts. Now, some of that is that stinker of a Game 7 he had in 2013 against the Rangers when he gave up five goals on the first 22 shots he faced in a 5-0 loss. He has allowed only six goals in four other Games 7. But it is always something with this team.
The Big Question… Braden Holtby had an elite season, but is he now an elite goaltender?
If you are going to consider the question of whether Braden Holtby is an elite goaltender, it might be helpful to consider the path he has taken and how that compares to those goalies to whom he might be compared. So, let’s take a look at Holtby’s 178-game career to date and compare that with some who might be widely considered as “elite” and their first 178 games:
Clearly, he is on a path to “elite,” compared to the same span of games to start his career as others in that category. However, while his early career has been impressive, especially in the context of the current era, he has been the unchallenged number one goaltender for only one of his five seasons to date. Not all of that is his doing, his 2013-2014 season spoiled by ineffective management of his game by then head coach Adam Oates. Still, there is the faint notion of “do it one more time” hovering about before he could be firmly called “elite.”
In the end…
From the time Olaf Kolzig put the Caps on his shoulders and carried them to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 until Braden Holtby appeared in his first post season game, six goaltenders manned the crease for the Capitals, including Kolzig. It was not an especially noteworthy part of Capitals playoff history. Combined, the sextet of Kolzig, Cristobal Huet, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Jose Theodore, and Craig Billington went 22-32, 2.59, .906, with five shutouts. They were a combined 12-22 in one-goal games.
Holtby is the goaltender the Caps have not had, at least in the postseason, since Kolzig’s big year in 1998. There is still the matter of how he does late in postseason series, but then again, he is tied for 19th among NHL goalies in total playoff games played since 2005-2006. The games played statistic is an interesting one for Holtby. It is entirely likely that by the time this year’s postseason ends, he will be the all-time franchise leader in playoff games played; Kolzig appeared in 45 games in his career, Holtby has appeared in 34 to date.
You could say that unless he shatters that mark, this will have been a disappointing season for him and for the Caps. Unlike previous seasons and previous goaltenders, though, Holtby should not have to bear an outsized share of the burden to carry the Caps into and through the postseason. The team around him is deep, experienced, and skilled. That – and having a goaltender on the cusp of “elite” status – are luxuries with which the club and its fans have not been well acquainted over the history of the franchise.
At an individual level, the talent surrounding him should allow Holtby to focus on his game, not on having to be the best player on the ice for the Caps, as he was for many games last season. With that burden lifted, he might find that he is just as often the best player on the ice and perhaps the best goaltender in the league. Another summit to reach for.
Projection: 39-19-6, 2.23, .922, six shutouts
Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America