Photo: Washington Times
After getting nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the second consecutive season following winning the trophy, which is awarded to the league’s top goalie in the regular season, in 2016-17, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has not been the same goalie since… at least during the regular season.
After posting a career high in save percentage (.925) and a career low in goals-against average (2.07) two seasons ago, Holtby, 29, did not have the best postseason we have seen from No. 70 in 2017 when he posted a .909 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average.
Holtby’s save percentage dropped from a save percentage of .923 during the previous three regular seasons to a save percentage of around .918 at the beginning of February last season. While he didn’t have a poor regular season up to that point, part of why his save percentage was lower was because the Capitals lost defensemen Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner, and Kevin Shattenkirk the previous offseason and replaced them with rookie defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who each had no NHL experience entering last season. Holtby faced a lot more shots last season (31.9 – tied for the 13th fewest in NHL) compared to the previous season (27.8 – fourth-fewest in the NHL). It also did not help that the team’s best defensive defenseman, Matt Niskanen, missed 14 games at the beginning of last season.
Holtby really dropped off when he had the worst slump of his NHL career, where he went 1-5-1 with a .851 save percentage from February 11-March 6. Then-Capitals coach Barry Trotz pulled Holtby in the second period of a 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on March 6, where Holtby allowed three goals on nine shots. After he was pulled, Holtby went down the hallway with anger and stayed in there for a few minutes before he came back out on the bench.
After the game when Trotz was asked if he would stick with Holtby as his starter, Trotz wasn’t positive about that saying that he could give the net to his backup, Philipp Grubauer, who was the NHL’s best goalie from Thanksgiving to the end of the regular season last year, posting a 15-5-2 record with a save percentage of .937 and a goals-against average of 1.93 in that span, for a little while. Trotz started Grubauer in two of the Capitals biggest games of the year: March 18 at the Philadelphia Flyers, who were third in the division at the time, and April 1 at the Pittsburgh Penguins with the Metro Division crown at stake.
After Grubauer made 36 saves on 37 shots in a 3-1 win in Pittsburgh, it was all but inevitable that he would start the playoffs as the No. 1 goalie. When Trotz announced that Grubauer would be starting, he had a conversation with Holtby, who told him that he’d take the net back if he got the chance to do so.
After Grubauer allowed eight goals in the first five periods of Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Holtby replaced him in the third period of Game 2 of the series and never looked back en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Holtby posted 16-7 record with a save percentage of .922 and a goals-against average of 2.16 after getting the net back and was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
#ALLCAPS Braden Holtby:
Start of 2017-2018 season: (10/5/17 to 12/31/17) (30 games) – 22-8-0, 2.63 GAA, .918 sv%
Regular season games since 1/1/18, : (32 games) – 16-11-5, 3.50 GAA, .892 sv%.
2018 postseason: (23 games) 16-7, 2.16 GAA, .922 sv%.
Career: 2.44 GAA, .919 sv%
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) November 2, 2018
For the first time in four seasons, Holtby would not have a cushion if he went through a rough stretch like he did last season. His backup goaltender would be Pheonix Copley, who entered the season with two games of NHL experience and came off of a season where he went 15-17-6 with a 2.91 goals against average and a .896 save percentage in the AHL. Though, he didn’t have a great defense in front of him and came off of two significant injuries.
So far in his first season without Grubauer since 2014-15, Holtby has posted a 4-3-1 record but has a save percentage of .887 and a goals-against average of 3.60. Though, he posted a shutout in the first game of the season after going through the 2017-18 regular season without a single one.
While he hasn’t been the Holtby that we all know and love, it is important to note that scoring around the league is up at the beginning of the season and the Capitals have allowed an average of 32.1 shots per game, 14th in the NHL this season, and the team has struggled on the penalty kill, where they are 25th in the NHL with an efficiency of 73.8%. Holtby has allowed at least three goals in a game six times already this season.
Despite Holtby’s early season struggles and his tough stretch at the end of the regular season last year, his numbers will likely go up once the team tightens up on defense and the scoring around the league drops back down to normal. For now, we shouldn’t worry. And besides, no one will remember that Holtby struggled at the beginning of the regular season if he follows it up with a strong postseason just like last year.
By Harrison Brown