Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
-- Edmund Hillary

Braden Holtby’s ascent to the top of his profession was steady and relentless.  A fourth-round draft pick in the 2008 entry draft, he spent another 68 regular season and playoff games in Canadian junior (Saskatoon Blades), 12 games in the ECHL (South Carolina Stingrays), 141 games in the AHL (Hershey Bears), and 126 regular season and playoff games with the Caps before taking the reins as the team’s number one goaltender for good in the 2014-2015 season when he appeared in a league leading 73 regular season games and all 13 games the Caps played in the 2015 postseason.

Starting with that 2014-2015 season he finished in the top-four in Vezina Trophy voting in three consecutive seasons, was a finalist twice, and won the trophy in 2015-2016 when he tied a league record for wins by a goaltender in a single season (48, with Martin Brodeur, who did it for the New Jersey Devils in 2006-2007).

But while the ascent was impressive, the summit – a deep run in the postseason leading to a Stanley Cup – remained out of reach.  Holtby was one of those Capitals who either disappointed in the postseason or was disappointed by his teammates in five trips to the playoffs, four of which ended in the second round.  It was especially hard on player and team, given that through last season Holtby had the best goals against average in the expansion era beginning after the 1966-1967 season (2.00) and the second-best save percentage (.932, behind Tim Thomas’ .933; minimum: 50 playoff appearances).

There was a hiccup in Holtby’s 2017-2018 season that interrupted his long string of regular season success.  In his last 22 appearances of the season he went 10-8-4, 3.47, .893; quite a drop-off from his 24-8-0, 2.68, .917 performance over his first 32 appearances.  It led head coach Barry Trotz to choose Philipp Grubauer to start the postseason for the Caps, but after Grubauer struggled in the Capitals overtime losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Games 1 and 2 of the first round, Holtby returned to the net.  After taking the Game 2 overtime loss, he then went 16-6, 2.17, .922 with two shutouts to finally win the big prize that eluded him and his teammates.  And, of course, there was what is perhaps the biggest save in team history...

Odd Holtby Fact…

Braden Holtby was the tenth goaltender selected in the 2008 entry draft.  Five of the nine taken ahead of him have yet to appear in an NHL game.  None of the 23 goaltenders taken in that draft are within 100 games played of Holtby (361).  Jake Allen is second with 219 (taken 34th overall, the fourth goalie taken in that draft).

Fearless’ Take…

No active goaltender has more 40-win seasons than Braden Holtby.  He and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne each have three such seasons.  And only Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, and Ryan Miller – three of the longest-tenured goalies in the league – are the others with more than one.  As it is, Holtby has 225 wins since coming into the league in 2010-2011, seventh among all goalies in that span, despite appearing in 40 fewer games (361) than the goalie with the second-fewest appearances on that list (Chicago’s Corey Crawford with 401 appearances and 229 wins).  He continued to thrive on a heavy workload in 2017-2018.  In 16 games in which he faced 35 or more shots, he was 13-2-1, 2.68, .929.  In the 31 complete games he played (not pulled early) in which he faced fewer than 35 shots, he was 21-7-3, 2.46, but with a save percentage of only .914.

Cheerless’ Take…

Over those last 22 appearances of the regular season in 2017-2018, Braden Holtby was 54th of 57 goals appearing in at least ten games in goals-against average (3.47), 55th in save percentage (.893), and was tied for 24th in wins (ten).  He was pulled four times over an 11-game span in which he went 3-6-2, 4.45, .872.

Potential Milestones…
  • 400 career appearances (he needs 39)
  • 250 wins (he needs 25)
  • 10,000 saves (he needs 525)

The Big Question…  Was last year’s late-season swoon a hiccup or evidence that the league has a better book on Holtby?

Last season was really the first time in his career that Braden Holtby suffered any sustained performance issues.  But on top of the late-season slump he suffered, he also had quite a home-road difference in results.  In 31 home appearances he was 22-7-2, 2.41, .921; but in 23 road appearances he was 12-9-2, 3.90, .889.  In all seven instances in which he was pulled early in contests, it occurred on the road.

But what made the season for Holtby just a little bit more bizarre was an odd regular/postseason difference.  In nine regular season games against the four teams Holtby faced in the postseason, he was 4-5-0, 3.48, .897, with no shutouts.  Then, he went 16-7, 2.16, .922, and he recorded his two shutouts in Games 6 and 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final.  If those four teams had a “book” on Holtby based on their regular season results against him, they forgot whatever lessons they taught.  Or, those problems that Holtby endured in the regular season were merely all of a slump that all players suffer at some point, if they play long enough.

In the end…

Nothing is every easy at the highest levels of competition, but one gets the feeling after last season that Braden Holtby had to experience that lengthy season-end slump and even lose his unchallenged status as the team’s number one goaltender as the last element of the education of a champion.  Having never experienced that kind of sustained difficulty in the regular season might have kept him from developing that hard shell that players need in the postseason to shrug off the occasional misfortune and plow through it in a way he was not able to do in his previous five trips to the postseason.

The pressure on him to avoid that kind of a slump will be greater this season as the club no longer has Philipp Grubauer to provide consistently effective support in a backup role.  There will be the temptation for the Caps, likely to start the season with Pheonix Copley as the number two netminder, to give Holtby a bigger workload this year than he had last season, especially early. Consider that last season Holtby appeared in only 20 of the Caps’ first 28 games.  On top of that, there was a distinct rhythm to those early appearances.  He was “two-on/one-off over Washington’s first dozen games before going to a “three-on/one-off” over the next 16 games.  

The Caps might not be able to afford that kind of pacing for Holtby early in the season as the club sorts out its backup goalie situation and eases Copley into that role.  How the goaltending situation unfold early could go a long way toward determining if the Caps will be in the playoff hunt later, and it makes watching Holtby’s workload something to which attention should be paid.  Having conquered his own misfortune to get to the top of the mountain, he will have to continue that effort to stay there.

Projection: 62 games, 38-18-4, 2.48, .918, 2 shutouts

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America