While the regular season is complete, it is still going to feel very much like a new season when the NHL resumes play after five months in between games due to the coronavirus pandemic. Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has been known as a slow starter throughout his career, which leaves some questions as head coach Todd Reirden and GM Brian MacLellan previously emphasized that Holtby will be the team’s starter going into the playoffs. NoVa Caps looks at Holtby’s starts to seasons throughout his career.
Holtby understandably took time to adjust in his first season as the Capitals’ starter as he went 4-4-0 with an .877 save percentage, a 3.90 goals-against average, and one shutout. Even worse, the Capitals’ opponents during that stretch had an average points percentage of .513 and the team faced two of the NHL’s three worst teams in the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning twice. Despite the rough start, Holtby went 19-8-1 (tied for first in wins) with a .930 save percentage (second), a 2.23 goals-against average (17th), and three shutouts (tied for fifth) the rest of the way.
Holtby started off the season slowly again but it would take him only four games to find his rhythm after an 0-3-0 start with an .873 save percentage and a 4.04 goals-against average. The opponents he faced were better than the prior year with an average points percentage of 546. After that slow start, he went 13-6-1 (tied for second in wins) with a .930 save percentage (11th), a 2.49 goals-against average (30th), and one shutout. Unfortunately, it would go downhill from there as the Capitals missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in seven years despite Holtby finishing with a respectable .915 save percentage.
Holtby stopped 52 of 53 shots in his first two games of the season (.981 save percentage) but his play dipped for a few weeks after that as he posted a 2-3-1 record with an .859 save percentage and a 3.41 goals-against average. The opponents that Holtby faced during that stretch had an average point percentage of .550. He rebounded as he led the league with 37 wins, was 11th with a .927 save percentage, and tied for ninth with a 2.16 goals-against average the rest of the way to finish fourth in Vezina Trophy voting as the NHL’s best goaltender while leading the NHL with 64 games played during that span.
After allowing six goals on his first 54 shots-against (.889 save percentage) of the season, Holtby posted a 32-4-3 record (led NHL in wins) with a .930 save percentage (10th), a 2.00 goals-against average (third), and two shutouts through February 8 on his way to his first Vezina Trophy victory and tying Martin Brodeur’s NHL record with 48 wins during the regular season.
Holtby started the season in pretty solid fashion, going 9-3-1 (tied for third in wins) with a .930 save percentage (14th), a 1.91 goals-against average (eighth), and one shutout. He went through one mediocre stretch in late November where he went 1-3-0 with an .881 save percentage and a 3.33 goals-against average but would go 32-7-5 (led NHL in wins) with a .927 save percentage (tied for fourth), a 2.01 goals-against average (third), and eight shutouts (first) the rest of the way en route to his second straight Vezina Trophy nomination.
It wasn’t the start of the season that was the problem for Holtby that year as he started 28-10-2 (tied for second in wins) with a .916 save percentage (30th) and a 2.74 goals-against average (37th) despite facing an average of 32.4 shots-per-game (21st-most) after the Capitals lost three defensemen from the NHL’s top defensive unit the previous year. After that start, he went 1-5-1 with an .851 save percentage and a 4.82 goals-against average and lost the starter’s crease for a little while before reclaiming it and leading the Capitals to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
After posting a shutout in the season opener, Holtby went 4-5-2 with an .894 save percentage and a 3.52 goals-against average, though he faced an average of 33.2 shots-against per game (10th-most) in that span. His opponents had an average point percentage of .554. After missing two games due to injury, Holtby found his game as he posted a 12-6-0 record (tied for third in wins) with a .921 save percentage (tied for 11th), a 2.54 goals-against average (15th), and one shutout during the next two months.
Holtby got off to a slow start for the second straight year as he went 1-1-2 with an .846 save percentage and a 4.27 goals-against average despite facing an average of only 27.8 shots-per-game during that span. Only Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (26.8) faced fewer. The opponents he faced early were hot, averaging a points percentage of .615. With rookie Ilya Samsonov performing admirably in his first couple NHL starts and Holtby set to become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end, many questioned whether it was time to give Samsonov the net. But Holtby went 16-3-2 (led NHL in wins) with a .922 save percentage (tied for 12th) and a 2.45 goals-against average (16th) over the next two months.
In his last 10 games prior to the NHL Pause, Holtby went 5-3-2 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.87 goals-against average.
While the media has made a big deal out of how slowly Holtby has started the past four seasons, it has really been a major issue over the past two. While that may concern some fans, the Capitals’ ticket to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is already punched and the first three games of the tournament will be for seeding only. While solid netminding would be great for the round-robin, Holtby can use these matches to fine-tune his game. If Holtby gets hot, watch out. He has put together a long string of solid play after starting out slowly the past couple of seasons. Perhaps the motivation of being in a contract year will help the 30-year-old. As long as he is ready after the round-robin, that’s what matters the most.
By Harrison Brown.