Monday, September 03, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

Theme: “You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds.”
-- Henry David Thoreau

Braden Holtby might not talk to the clouds…yet, but his idiosyncrasies as a goaltender -- "Holtbyisms" -- place him firmly in the mainstream of curiosities that constitute the goaltender fraternity. He also possesses a curious set of inconsistencies as far as the progress of his career with the Washington Capitals is concerned.

Holtby was the tenth goalie selected in the 2008 NHL entry draft (93rd player selected overall), yet he has more regular season games played so far in his career (21) than the combined total of the nine goalies selected before him. Those 21 games rank only 29th among the 43 goaltenders who have taken the ice for the Caps, but his 14 playoff games (all in the 2012 postseason) ranks him fifth all-time for Washington.

Until last spring’s playoff run, Holtby might not have been topping many lists of top young goalie prospects, but among all goaltenders having played at least 1,000 minutes over their first and second seasons in the league since 1990-1991, Holtby ranks second in goals against average (2.02, to Marty Turco’s 2.00), and his .929 save percentage ranks first. And yet, his playoff numbers from last spring are even better – 1.95 goals against average (third among all playoff goaltenders) and a .935 save percentage (third).

Fearless’ Take…

Holtby has had an interesting progression of efficiency as he moved up the competitive ladder. In four seasons in the Western Hockey League covering 177 games he compiled a combined save percentage of .905. This improved to .911 in only 12 games in the ECHL, but it jumped to .914 in three seasons (107 games) with Hershey in the AHL. And of course, there is the .929 save percentage he has posted in his first 21 NHL games. He will be coming into this season having a 12-2-2 record over his last 16 regular season games with a 1.61 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. Ten of those 16 games came against teams that would make the playoffs (7-1-2).

Cheerless’ Take…

I’m no math whiz, cuz, but Holtby has, what…35 games of NHL experience, regular season and playoffs? Not a lot to go on. I was looking at some of those guys who had better than a 2.25 goals against and a higher than .920 save percentage over their first two seasons. I don’t think Roman Cechmanek or Martin Gerber is generally thought of among the greats in goaltending over the last 20 years. Then there is that whole thing about “focus” you wrote about a few weeks ago. If you look at those three years in Hershey he had pretty good save percentages in his first two years there -- .917 in 37 games in his first year, .920 in 30 games in his second year. But last year, in his third year with the Bears, he dropped to .906, tied for 39th in the league. In fact, in his last 50 regular season games in Hershey he had a pretty average 2.76 goals against average and .901 save percentage.

The Big Question… Can Braden Holtby sustain his performance level to date over a full NHL season?

The simple answer to this question is “no.” Holtby’s top-end numbers so far in his young career are a 2.02 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. Let’s say Holtby was to log 2,500 minutes this season (27 goalies logged at least as many last season). That would get him to a little over 3,500 minutes over his first three seasons. No goaltender since 1990-1991 has achieved those goals against and save percentage numbers in at least 3,500 combined minutes over their first three seasons. Only two goalies have lower than a 2.02 goals against average in at least 3,500 minutes over their first three seasons: Roman Cechmanek and Marty Turco. Only ten such goalies have a GAA lower than 2.30. Only three goalies in that period under those criteria have a save percentage of over .920: Niklas Backstrom, Roman Cechmanek, and Marty Turco. Only 18 have a save percentage over .910 (teammate Michal Neuvirth is one of them at .913).

In the end...

Assessing where Holtby will start, let alone finish, is a difficult proposition. In short bursts he has shown himself to be a superb puckstopper, especially in very competitive situations. But the operative term there is “short bursts.” Twenty-one regular season games over two seasons and 14 playoff games playing behind a team with a philosophy of playing safe is not much of a record upon which to project performance. What we can say with some certainty is that Holtby is very unlikely, given history, to maintain the low GAA and high save percentage he has in his 21 regular season games of experience to date.

But can he fit comfortably in the next tier – a GAA under 2.50 and a save percentage over .910? Well, let us frame it this way. There were 27 goalies that played at least 2,500 minutes last season. Of that number, 15 had a GAA under 2.50 and had a save percentage over .910. Only four had a save percentage under .910. For Holtby, minutes will follow performance this season. If he is to be a 2,500-minute goaltender, he will have to achieve that standard of a sub-2.50 goals against average and a save percentage north of .910. Otherwise, he could see a lot of baseball cap duty.

One could say that the Capitals’ goaltending situation has significant uncertainty attached to it – two young goalies with limited resumes. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a luxury in that the Caps can go with the hot hand more than a team that has to rely on a 65-70 game, 4,000 minute netminder. Holtby will have his moments, but he will also remind fans that he is a 23-year old with fewer than 50 games of NHL experience, too.

Projection: 43 games, 20-14-4, 2.46, .914, two shutouts