“We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.”
― Henry Ward Beecher
The Metropolitan Division of the NHL is among the most, if not the most competitive division in the league. Last season, six point separated the first place Washington Capitals and the fifth place Columbus Blue Jackets. In 2017-2018, eight points separated first and fifth place. The balance in the division places a heavy premium on goaltending play. If not excellent (if you define that as “Vezina-worthy), then at least consistent over an 82-game season.
With Sergei Bobrovsky, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets, having departed for the Florida Panthers as an unrestricted free agent this past summer, Braden Holtby returns as the winningest netminder in the division over the past two seasons (66 wins, ten more than Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray). However, his underlying numbers have not been especially impressive over those two seasons. His goals against average (2.90) ranks ninth among 16 goalies with at least 2,000 minutes played over the last two seasons, and his .909 save percentage ranks ninth. He has the unfortunate matter of having allowed five or more goals more times over the last two seasons (16) than any other Metro goalie (Henrik Lundqvist: 13). Part of that is a product of shouldering such a heavy workload, but it is disturbing nonetheless.
Still, last season was an improvement on his 2017-2018 season in important respects. His win total was down (from 34 to 32 in four more starts and five more appearances), but his goals against average was better (down from 2.99 to 2.82), his save percentage was up (from .907 to .911), and he had three shutouts, whereas he had none in the regular season in 2017-2018, the only season of his nine-year career in which he did not record a shutout.
Odd Holtby Fact…
There have been 23 goaltenders taken in the fourth round of the draft in NHL history who have appeared in the postseason. Braden Holtby is the only one to win a Stanley Cup as a number one netminder.
Bonus Odd Holtby Fact…
Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, population less than 12,000 (the Alberta portion of the city is somewhat larger), has sent 11 players to the NHL, including former Capital Garnet “Ace” Bailey. Braden Holtby is the only goaltender among them.
Extra Bonus Odd Holtby Fact…
Braden Holtby is not a “relief” goaltender. Over the past five seasons, only Pekka Rinne and Corey Crawford among 55 goalies appearing in at least 100 games have started a higher percentage of total appearances. Rinne is at 99.7 percent (305 starts in 306 appearances), Crawford is at 99.6 percent (236 starts in 237 appearances), and Holtby is third at 99.4 percent (313 starts in 315 appearances).
If Braden Holtby was to spend his entire career with the Washington Capitals, he would own almost, if not every meaningful franchise record for goaltenders. As it is, in nine seasons with the Caps he is:
- 2nd in games played (420)
- 2nd in seasons played (nine)
- 2nd in wins (257)
- 2nd in shots faced (12,101)
- 2nd in saves (11,110)
- 2nd in minutes played (24,085)
- 2st in save percentage (.918; minimum: 50 appearances)
- 4th in goals against average (2.47; minimum: 50 appearances)
- T-1st in shutouts (35)
- 1st in playoff games played (89)
- 1st in playoff wins (48)
- 1st in save percentage (.928; minimum: ten games)
- 1st in goals against average (2.09; minimum: ten games)
- 1st in shutouts (seven)
Careers have an ebb and flow to them the longer they go. Caps fans might not remember, but the year before Olaf Kolzig won the Vezina Trophy, he was 26-31-3, 2.58, .900, albeit on a team decimated by injuries. And while Holtby slipped a bit the past two seasons, he allowed two or fewer goals 31 times in 56 starts in which he finished last season. And, only eight goalies allowed two or fewer goals more often while facing 35 or more shots on goal than did Holtby last season (nine).
In his first seven seasons with the Caps, Braden Holtby had a save percentage under .920 only once, and that one -- .915 in 48 games in 2013-2014 – was still better than the save percentage he posted in either of the last two seasons (.907 in 2017-2018, .911 last season). Of 33 goalies appearing in at least 40 games last season, Holtby’s even strength save percentage was .922, 16th in the league, and he was 31st in that group in save percentage when the Caps were shorthanded (.827). To some extent, that might be a product of the defense in front of him, but Holtby does not seem to be quite the goalie he was before these last two seasons.
- 300 career wins (257; he needs 43)
- All-time leader in shutouts in franchise history (35; he needs one to break tie with Olaf Kolzig)
- 25,000 minutes played (24,805; he needs 915)
- 1,000 goals allowed (991; he needs nine)
- Top-100 all time in games played among NHL goaltenders (420; he needs five to tie Jon Casey and Chuck Rayner for 99th place)
- Top-50 all time in wins among NHL goaltenders (Tuukka Rask will probably pass Felix Potvin for 50th place early (Rash trails by one win), and Holtby (257 wins) is in a race with Bobrovsky (255) and Jaroslav Halak (254) to catch Potvin (266 wins)) https://www.hockey-reference.com/leaders/wins_goalie_career.html
- Top-50 all time in career shutouts by an NHL goaltender (35; he needs three to tie six goalies for 45th place) https://www.hockey-reference.com/leaders/shutouts_career.html
- Top-20 all time in postsesason wins by a goaltender (48, he needs one to tie Glenn Hall for 20th place (49))
The Big Question… Will Braden Holtby’s contract situation be a distraction in or a means to focus on the 2019-2020 season?
Before the 2004-2005 lockout and the salary cap provision that was included in the collective bargaining agreement that broke the impasse, players with long tenures with a single club were not uncommon, even for goaltenders. By the time the NHL went dark in 2004-2005, Martin Brodeur already had a dozen seasons with the New Jersey Devils. Olaf Kolzig had been with the Caps 13 seasons. Jose Theodore had been with the Montreal Canadiens eight seasons. Martin Biron had been with Buffalo seven seasons.
But with the salary cap, giving players raises with new contracts, whatever their merit, comes at a price in deals you can’t make elsewhere on the roster, and making large investments in a position where a single player commands two-thirds or more of the appearances, as if the case with a number one goalie, carries special risks. There is also the matter of assessing the likelihood that single player will maintain a level of performance in the next contract that he did in the current one.
Braden Holtby represents a difficult risk-reward matter for the Capitals as he enters the last year of his current contract that carries a $6.1 million cap hit, the eighth-highest cap hit of any goalie currently under contract, according to capfriendly.com. It is worth noting that five of the seven goalies with higher cap hits are older than Holtby, but three of them – Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Henrik Lundqvist – play for team likely to struggle to make the postseason this year. It raises the issue of whether re-upping Holtby in a capped environment is something the Caps can afford. An analysis of that issue, and any similarities it might have to situations faced by other teams in similar situations, is one for another day, but the issue of relevance here is whether that consideration and the uncertainty it can cause poses a distraction or serves as a basis for focus on the part of Holtby.
Holtby faced a faintly similar situation in 2014-2015, when a two-year contract under which he was playing, with a $1.85 million annual cap hit, was expiring. While the expiration of that contract would have left Holtby in a restricted free agent status and a different dynamic, the matter did not appear to distract. He led the league that season in appearances (73), minutes played (4,247), set what at the time was a career high in wins (41), and had career bests for a full season in goals against average (2.22, fifth among 34 goalies with at least 2,000 minutes) and save percentage (.923, tied for seventh in that group). Only Marc-Andre Fleury had more shutouts (10) than did Holtby (nine). He finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy voting.
If there are performance issues for Holtby in 2019-2020, one would not think they would be a product of distraction. The bigger issue surrounding this issue is one for Caps fans, who have to deal with perhaps a season long contemplation of this being Holtby’s last season in Washington.
In the end…
That 2014-2015 season for Braden Holtby set off a three-season run in which he was arguably the league’s best goaltender. He appeared in 202 games over that span (first), won 131 games (tops by a 23-win margin over Devan Dubnyk), had a goals against average of 2.17 (second among goalies with at least 5,000 minutes played to Carey Price (2.09)), had a .923 save percentage (tied for second among goalies with at least 5,000 minutes played), and had 21 shutouts (first). He finished as a Vezina finalist twice and won the award in one of those instances.
In the last two seasons he has not had numbers as sparkling as those, and while he was a money goalie in the 2018 postseason after having been passed over for Philipp Grubauer to start the first two games of the opening round against Columbus, he was not as impressive in the 2019 postseason (3-4, 2.67, .914, one shutout) in the opening round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
What it means is that there is some “show me” that Braden Holtby might have to provide the Caps’ front office for the team to give serious consideration to investing a large share of the salary cap in his services. Tempering this view is the lack of NHL experience number one goalie-in-waiting Ilya Samsonov has had, making it difficult to project his potential at this level as a replacement.
Braden Holtby has come a long way from a fourth round draft pick to Vezina Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion. He has a resume that suggests he will get paid in time for the 2020-2021 season. Whether that is with Washington or another club is an issue that could be hanging over Capitals Nation much of the season.
Projection: 60 games, 34-17-5, 2.70, .918, 4 shutouts
Photo: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images North America