It was noticeable during the 2016-2017 playoffs. Braden Holtby just didn’t look like his usual self. He was letting in goals he usually stops or just wasn’t making the grade A saves like he usually did. Ultimately the Washington Capitals exit in 2nd round of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holtby finished that playoff run with a .909sv% and a -4.04GSAA (goals saved above average), his worst stats in the playoffs. If the Capitals had got average goaltending from Holtby, then they probably move on. He wasn’t all there, and it’s easy to see why: he was tired.
From 2014-2017, no goalie played more than Holtby’s 202 games and few had better stats. It eventually all caught up to him and he ran out of energy in those 2017 playoffs.
It didn’t get any any better to start the 2017-2018 season. Holtby never really got consistent and ended up posting his worst season save percentage by a large margin with a .907sv% and a -8.36GSAA. Luckily, for the Capitals, Philipp Grubauer was still in the system and was able to step up and keep the Capitals afloat as Holtby got his much- needed rest. The Beast was then able to come into the playoffs, well rested and we all know what happened after that. Without a rest for Holtby there’s no way the Capitals raise the Cup.
Braden ended up playing 54 games in the 2017-2018 season. That’s 13 games less than his season average from the three seasons before, combined. That might not sound like too much, but that’s a lot of rest, and that was obviously much-needed.
In fact, here is the list of the last eight Cup winning and losing goalies by the amount of games they played during just the regular season (note: 2013 lock out season was averaged out to be 82 games played).
The only year where a Cup-winning goalie played more than his opponent was this last season (but that was because Fleury was injured for two months) and when Jonathan Quick went berserk in the 2012 post season. It seems like the sweet spot for the starting goalie is around 55 games, give or take. Once game 60 happens, it gets shaky. That means a team needs a viable backup to play 25-30 games a season. And that leads us to why the backup position is maybe the most vital position for the Capitals this upcoming season.
For now, it looks like Pheonix Copley is slated to be Holtby’s back up starting in October. That’s an exciting and scary decision. Though Copley has looked very promising in his AHL career, he has a grand total of two NHL games of experience. Is he ready to play 25-30 games? That’s the million dollar question. If he can translate his AHL success to the NHL, then the Capitals hit a home run with a goalie making $650k. But if he isn’t ready then the Capitals will have a big hole that they need to fill.
There aren’t really any other goalies in the system that can step up into the NHL this season. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek certainly look like they will be effective NHL goalies at some point, but more than likely, not this season. This makes you wonder if the Capitals will bring a goalie in on a professional tryout (PTO) to maybe give Copley some competition. Steve Mason (30), Kari Lehtonen (34), and Ondrej Pavelec (30) are the best remaining goaltenders on the market. Any one of them would be good to great backups to have.
Mason had the 5th best GSAA and 4th best save percentage over the last four seasons among ALL goaltenders playing at least 5000 minutes. His only issue is he can have some health issues; he only played 13 games last season. Pavelec wasn’t too shabby either, as he was 18th in GSAA and 30th in 5v5 sv% among goalies playing at least 4500 minutes. Lehtonen was 30th in GSAA and 36th in 5v5sv% among goaltenders played at least 5000 minutes. Lehtonen is the oldest and probably the worst of the of three, but if Capitals brought him in it would be for the “can’t beat them, join them” saying, as Lehtonen has owned the Capitals since he entered the league. Mason is by far the best of the bunch but Pavelec and Lehtonen could probably step in for those 25 games and win a good chunk of them.
The Capitals have one of the best goalies in the league, but as was proven last season and from previous Cup winners, being able to rest your starter is huge for a team’s long-term success. The Capitals need to find a competent back up so Holtby can get the rest needed to push through the playoffs. Whether that’s with homegrown talent like Copley or even Samsonov and Vanecek, or veteran players that could bring stability like Mason. It will be hard to repeat another Cup winning season if Holtby has to push 60+ games again. Rest, like a competent backup, is the key to the Capitals success.
By Luke Adomanis