When the Washington Capitals selected a little-known goaltender from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan by the name of Braden Holtby with the 93rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, many fans didn’t blink an eye.
With promising young netminders in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth already showing potential, no one thought there would be room for Holtby. But seven years later, both Varlamov and Neuvirth are gone, both traded, and Holtby is the undisputed number one in Chinatown. With the ink dry on his five-year, $30.5 million extension, Holtby has elevated his game to an elite level this season. But while the 2014-15 season saw Holtby’s rise to the top-tier goalies in the National Hockey League, Holtby showed he had number one-caliber stuff from the moment he first put on a Caps sweater.
Holtby made his professional debut in the 2009-10 season, winning seven of 12 games played with the Capitals’ East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate South Carolina Stingrays. He then won an impressive 24 out of 37 games played with the Hershey Bears to go along with a 2.32 goals-against average (GAA) and .917 save percentage. That season, he represented the Stingrays in the ECHL All-Star Game.
Holtby made his NHL debut on November 5, 2010, when he replaced Neuvirth midway through a game against the Boston Bruins. With the game tied 3-3, Holtby turned aside four shots in an eventual 5-3 Capitals win. Two nights later, he made his first start, a 3-2 overtime win. On March 9, 2011, he registered his first shutout. After recording a 4-0-0 record, a 1.05 GAA, and .965 save percentage, Holtby was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week. It was apparent that he had tremendous potential, and despite posting a 10-2-2 record in 14 starts, he was re-assigned to Hershey.
It wasn’t until the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs that Holtby finally broke through. With both starter Tomas Vokoun and backup Neuvirth sidelined with injury, Holtby was thrust into the spotlight as the team’s starting goalie. From the moment the playoffs began, Holtby was lights out, helping the Capitals defeat the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round, then taking the New York Rangers to seven games in the second before falling in the seventh game. His playoff performance earned him the nickname “Holtbeast”.
Over the next two seasons, Holtby remained the team’s number one, before former head coach Adam Oates instructed Holtby to play deeper in his crease, resulting in a less-than stellar 23-15-4 record, 2.85 GAA, and a .915 save percentage. After the season, Oates was fired and was replaced by veteran Barry Trotz, who brought along famed goalie coach Mitch Korn, who had previously worked with goalies such as Dominik Hasek, Vokoun, and Pekka Rinne. Korn’s guidance saw Holtby record a career-high 41 wins, 2.22 GAA, and .923 save percentage, with nine shutouts. Holtby finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting.
Holtby’s potential was clear from the start. He currently ranks third in franchise history with 121 wins (180 behind franchise leader Olaf Kolzig), third with 5,422 saves, first in career save percentage with .922, first in career GAA with 2.37,and second in shutouts with 21. It’s safe to say that by the time his career ends, Holtby will have overtaken Kolzig as the best netminder in franchise history.
By Michael Fleetwood