After the Washington Capitals traded goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche along with defenseman Brooks Orpik in exchange for the 47th pick in the NHL Draft on June 22, there will be more pressure on goaltender Braden Holtby this upcoming season. How will the Caps handle his workload?
Without a proven backup on the roster, Holtby, 28, will have to play like he did when he was a back-to-back Vezina Trophy finalist in 2016 and 2017. He won the award, which is given to the top goaltender in the league, in 2016, while finishing second to Columbus Blue Jackets’ goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in 2017.
After the loss of defensemen Karl Alzner, who signed a five-year contract worth $22.5 million ($4.5 million AAV) with the Montreal Canadiens; Kevin Shattenkirk, who signed a four-year contract worth $26.6 million ($6.65 million AAV), and Nate Schmidt, who was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, Holtby’s save percentage dipped from a career-high .923 two seasons ago to a career-low .907 last season and from a career-low 2.07 goals-against average to a career-high 2.99.
Holtby went through a stretch where he went 1-5-1 with an .851 save percentage from February 11-March 6, when he yielded the starting job to Grubauer. Grubauer ended the season as arguably the NHL’s best goaltender from Thanksgiving to the end of the regular season, posting a record of 15-5-2, a save percentage of .937, and a goals-against average of 1.93. Grubauer finished the regular season with a 15-10-3 record, a goals against average of 2.35, and a save percentage of .923.
Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz opted to start Grubauer for the first two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after his sensational end of the regular season. But after Grubauer allowed eight goals in the first five periods of Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Holtby replaced him and never looked back en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Holtby posted a 16-7 record with a save percentage of .922 and a goals-against average of 2.16. He was mentioned as a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but captain Alex Ovechkin won the honor after leading the playoffs with 15 goals.
Holtby will be back in net as the Capitals launch their quest for a repeat and will likely be backed up by goaltender Pheonix Copley to start the season. The Capitals re-acquired Copley, 26, in the Shattenkirk trade with the St. Louis Blues at the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline as a back-up goalie in case the Caps lost Grubauer in the expansion draft to the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights passed on Grubauer and instead took 26-year old defenseman Nate Schmidt after he had a strong postseason showing. Shortly after Vegas took Schmidt, the Capitals re-signed Copley before he was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
Copley had a strong showing in Hershey to round out the 2016-2017 season after being re-acquired from the Blues, posting a 2.15 goals against average and a .931 save percentage in 16 games, which sparked speculation last summer that Grubauer could be traded after the Capitals lost a lot of depth in free agency. Copley suffered an injury during the 2017 playoffs and struggled last year, posting 15-17-4 record, a save percentage of .891 and a goals against average of 2.91. Copley has appeared in only two NHL games, both with St. Louis, and has an 0-1 record.
Copley will likely get the first shot at serving as Holtby’s new understudy at training camp since the Capitals want 2015 first round pick Ilya Samsonov to begin the season in Hershey. Samsonov went 12-9-1 and had a save percentage of .926 and a 2.31 goals against average this past season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL. Samsonov could challenge Copley for the No. 2 spot if he adjusts quickly to the competition in Hershey. Samsonov, 21, signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Capitals on May 4.
Regardless of who serves as a backup, Holtby is almost certain to see a much heavier workload than he had last season, when he made 54 starts. But how much of a workload can he take? Some commenters saw Holtby’s mid-February struggles as a matter of mental fatigue rather than physical fatigue given his laser-like focus on game days.
Before this season, Holtby made at least 63 starts in each of the past three seasons and led the NHL with 73 games played in 2014-15. He finished fourth or higher in Vezina voting in each of those years. During that stretch, he accumulated more than 20,000 minutes of ice time, more than any other player during that period.
Looking at other elite goalies in the League, a heavy workload is the norm for a 28 year-old in their prime. New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played in 67 games and Nashville Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne appeared in 64 contests. Los Angeles Kings’ netminder Jonathan Quick manned the twine 72 times as a 29-year-old, while Golden Knights’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had 64 appearances at age 29.
Having an experienced backup in Grubauer provided the Caps with an important insurance policy last season, and Grubauer’s performance during the final stretch allowed the Caps to clinch the Metropolitan Division title. Should the Caps explore a more experienced free agent signing? The Capitals aren’t likely to have much cap space, and the free agent market for goalies is pretty thin.
Of the four remaining free agent goaltenders, the most appealing is probably Kari Lehtonen, who played with the Dallas Stars last year. Lehtonen went 15-14-3 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average in 36 games as Ben Bishop’s backup and has experience as a starting goalie. Lehtonen, 35, posted a save percentage greater than .920 only once in his career (.922 in 2011-12). From 2014-15 through 2016-17, he never had a save percentage above .906. A side benefit of signing Lehtonen would be not having to face him — in 28 career games against the Capitals, Lehtonen has posted a record of 18-7-3, with a save percentage of .920 and a goals against average of 2.66. His 18 wins against the Capitals are the most he has against any NHL franchise.
Other remaining free agent goalies include Ondrej Pavelec (4-9-1, .910 SV%, 3.05 GAA with the Rangers last season), Steve Mason (5-6-1, .906 SV%, 3.24 GAA with the Winnipeg Jets last season), and Cody Glass (3-7-3, .898 SV%, 3.36 GAA with the Chicago Blackhawks last season).
The Capitals will have to give Braden Holtby rest over the course of the regular season to make sure he is well-rested going into the playoffs as they defend the Stanley Cup. The Capitals will have to find a sturdy backup whether that is inside or outside the organization.
By Harrison Brown