Is There Something Wrong With Braden Holtby?

As the trade deadline approaches, so do talks and speculations about the postseason. For the Washington Capitals, netminder Braden Holtby is regarded as one of the best in the postseason with playoff career numbers of a 2.00 GAA (goals-against average) and a .932 save percentage. 

Two years ago, heading into the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Holtby came off of a Vezina-winning regular season performance and did not disappoint in the playoffs (1.72 GAA, .942 SV%). Unfortunately, his dominant performance would not carry the Capitals past the second round as they were eliminated in the second round by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Following an identical 2016-17 season, Holtby captured the William M. Jennings Trophy after another strong season as Washington’s number one goaltender. Enter the playoffs, and something is not quite right. Holtby’s stats weathered with a goals-against average of 2.47 and .909 save percentage. This trend was noticeable, as Holtby didn’t seem to be able to see the puck very well and let in quite a few leaky goals that he would normally stop. The Capitals once again had their playoff run cut short by the eventual back-to-back champion Penguins.

Holtby “,, affectionately known as Holtbeast” has become a fan favorite in Washington ever since he broke out in star fashion during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has racked up more wins in the last few seasons than any other active goaltender; so it is walking on thin ice to critique such an elite player. Many Caps fans argue that the defense was not strong enough the last few postseasons, although viewing the Capitals’ stats from the last two playoff runs, that may not have been the case.

Capitals’ Playoff stats:

The Caps played well defensively in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and their solid goals-against per games played (GA/GP) went hand-in-hand with the excellence of  Holtby. Averaging a rounded two goals for per games played (GF/GP) is just not good enough to win every playoff series. The Caps’ offense never has been as dominant as it normally is in the regular season, partly because of the higher intensity and urgency of play in the playoffs. The following season, the Caps scored a better 2.77 GF/GP, but matched that in GA/GP. Holtby struggled, posting career-low playoff numbers despite the roster being just as strong (on paper) defensively as the previous season. This poses the question: If Holtby would have performed better, would it have been enough for the Caps to prevail?

Holtby’s current regular season numbers are the lowest they have been since the 2013-14 season; ironically, the last time the Capitals missed the playoffs (2.76 GAA, .915 SV %). He has also failed to record a shutout so far this season, which is uncharacteristic of him. In his defense, the Caps’ defense is not as strong this season, with significant departures last summer forcing the Capitals to start two rookie blueliners. Rookie Christian Djoos (three goals, 13 points, plus-10) has played well and looks more NHL-ready than his fellow rookie Madison Bowey (zero goals, 12 points, minus-1), but still shows signs that he has much to learn, such as when he turned over the puck right in front of Holtby in a recent game against the Penguins, giving Carl Hagelin a clean break at Holtby.

Even the veteran defensemen are heavily-criticized for turning over the puck, creating high risk chances for the opposition. Holtby has also faced a total of 1,219 shots against, which places him at eighth in the NHL in that department and an average of 31.3 shots against per game. This is much higher than last season’s 26.8 shots against per game. In the playoffs last season, Holtby faced an average of 28 shots against, which is lower than the 30.3 he faced in the 2016 playoffs, yet he still fared worse. Despite the dip in Holtby’s numbers, the Caps currently stand at first in the Metropolitan Division and are expected to make the playoffs. While the nail-biting trade deadline approaches and the regular season winding down, questions need to be answered. What can we expect from Holtby the rest of this season? Will he bail the Caps out when they need him the most? Will the defense be upgraded enough to stabilize him and allow him to see the puck? Should the Caps just go with more offense?  Only time will tell.

By Roman Borris

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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15 Responses to Is There Something Wrong With Braden Holtby?

  1. Jon Sorensen says:

    I’m sure there are plenty of theories. Mine, he misses Mitch Korn, and new defense has left him more exposed than in recent seasons.

  2. DayOne Caps Fanatic says:

    Hi Jon … Great column. If you are correct, and Holtby is having an off-year because his misses his old coach, then he should step aside and let the German goalie have a chance to backstop the Caps in the Playoffs. 42 years is a long drought — Can’t wait for unhappy goalie to get it together, He has had MANY opportunities and Caps have ZERO to show for it

  3. Brenna Neal says:

    Holtby can make some incredible saves, but one on one he just can’t get the job done. Breakaways and shoot outs he simply sucks. I would rather see Grubrauer in goal. I think with time in net he would be the better all around goalie.

    • Brenna, I feel your concern for the Caps! Throwing Holtby to the waysaide because his numbers are down would do no good. Despite his struggle in OT and SO, he is still one of the league’s best goaltenders. Ultimately, he is already regarded as one of the best ever, having his name thrown in the same conversation as Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy! No doubt Grubauer is a solid goalie, but he is not the one to lead the Caps through the rest of the season and the Playoffs! Most likely, he will be the bait that lures the big names in the trade market.

      • DayOne Caps Fanatic says:

        “No doubt Grubauer is a solid goalie, but he is not the one to lead the Caps through the rest of the season and the Playoffs! Most likely, he will be the bait that lures the big names in the trade market.” — Hope you are right, Michael! Caps will not win anything with the current roster, and must make a bold trade.

  4. Interesting theory, Jon. Holtby’s numbers are most certainly lower than in years past! But, I don’t think it is fair to single him out like this! I think it is important to look at Washington’s goaltending crew collectively. Grubauer, also a stellar netminder, is having what you might call “an off-season” when comparing numbers. These collective numbers are a reflection of poor defense and the blueliners’ carelessness with the puck, as you hinted at. One stat that jumps out at me the most is the team shots on goal per game. Washington sits last in the league in this column. You might think this is an offensive lapse, but the Capitals forwards are unable to generate more shots if the team cannot obtain possession in the defensive zone. The team’s number of blocked shots have declined as well. They are currently 22nd in that category. Also, the Caps can’t seem to stay out of the penalty box! They are 7th on the list for most penalty minutes and 22nd in penalty kill percentage. Holtby and Grubauer are constantly being tested and hung out to dry due to offensive/defensive miscues. Despite the skaters’ errors and uncharacteristic numbers, Holtby has still managed to rack up 27 wins (T-3rd), which tells me he is the reason the Capitals are in their current position of first in the stacked Metropolitan Division!
    You might ask, “What is the solution?” The obvious answer is to acquire a “top-name” defenseman to help fill a void. I don’t necessarily agree with this! We thought that was the answer last season when the Caps added Shattenkirk to an already loaded roster. Well…that proved not to be the answer! During the off-season, the Caps “unloaded” their roster, sending top point producers like Marcus Johansson and pivotal players such as Karl Alzner away, among many others. When it looks like all is lost, that gives remaining players the opportunity to step up and fill those roles and become the new point producers. Some players have stepped up (Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly), others have not (T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky). It’s miraculous that the Caps hold a first place lead at this point, because they were doomed to fail from the beginning, according to most! Many said the current team would have less talent and would potentially miss the post season! The answer is not the roster, the talent is there! The answer is in the locker room, in practice and on the bench! It starts with Barry Trotz and the guys up in the fancy booth making all the decisions. It is up to them to promote mental toughness in the club, not an expensive acquisition! The front office needs to instill in the program an attitude of winning and work ethic, and forget about what was or what could have been! The answer is to inhibit “complacency”. The Caps need to be reminded of who they are now, not who they were the last 10 seasons! Washington needs to believe they are Stanley Cup contenders, not a washed-up group with a diminishing window. Without a change in attitude, a change in atmosphere will mean nothing!

    -Michael Hetzler, RVA Caps Manager

  5. Anonymous says:

    He was expected to carry the load this year… and he has… The rangers and canes are out of the race…. maybe the Islanders get in… Trade Grubbie+prospect like Gerisch for a young solid D and get set for the playoffs. The Metro is dead even this year. Flip a coin.

  6. “In his defense, the Caps’ defense is not as strong this season, with significant departures last summer forcing the Capitals to start two rookie blueliners….”

    To me, that observation underscores the absurdity of giving goalies won-lost records. As with quarterbacks in the NFL, there are many other variables to factor in before the equation makes sense. For starters, a goalie can do his job PERFECTLY, but until a teammate puts the puck in the net he CAN’T and WILL NEVER get credited with a win….NEVER!!!!

    Second, as you point out, defensemen not playing well–and a coach juggling defense pairings or forward combos as a remedy–can easily interfere with chemistry and contribute to a goalie’s inability to turn in a “winning” performance.

    The Capitals’ struggles this season in both respects have had a corresponding impact on Holtby’s save percentage and goals against stats…beyond his own ineptness at times which has only made matters worse. We’ll see if he can straighten things out sans Mitch Korn. If not, look for an even earlier exit from the playoffs this season–which will at least spare us the indignity of losing once more to a speedier, tougher, more highly skilled Penguins team who look as intimidating as ever with Yvgeni Malkin looking better than he has in a couple of years and the promotion of their phenomenal Czech rookie winger Dominik Simon…


    Sta. Monica

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