Manning the Pipes: Who Should Start in Goal For The Washington Capitals?

As the NHL prepares for the resumption of play for the 24 team playoff format at the end of the month, there will clearly be plenty of unknowns regarding quality of play. With such an extensive period of no games being played, there is a lot of validity in looking at the qualifying round of the playoffs and the round robin play before the first round as essentially a new season.

One thing that has consistently been pointed out is that Braden Holtby tends to struggle in the first month of the season throughout his career. It’s fair to predict that with the extensive layoff between the last regular season game played on March 9th and the resumption of play later this summer, that Holtby may have similar struggles.

The interesting comparison to Ilya Samsonov is that he was effective in October this past season, but one month of play in Samsonov’s rookie campaign is an extremely small sample size.

In this piece, we’ll compare and contrast the career splits for Holtby and Samsonov for the first month of play throughout their careers, as well as weighing that against their career playoff stats. One thing to keep in mind here is that Holtby has considerable playoff experience, where Samsonov has none, other than 8 games in the KHL playoffs.

Statistics provided below are courtesy of Hockey-Reference and the official KHL website

Braden Holtby

As you can see, Holtby’s statistical performance in the first month of the season (typically October) is rather pedestrian when compared with his career averages. For context, Holtby’s career average performance for the above metrics are measurably better, a record of 282-122-46, a save percentage of .916, and a GAA of 2.53. For Samsonov, the numbers are pretty consistent with his average over the course of his rookie season.

As we’ve seen in the past, the NHL playoffs are a completely different monster than the regular season. Games are tighter, much more is at stake, and play is typically elevated. Holtby has consistently been a top-tier goaltender during the playoffs, even when struggling in the regular season. Case in point is the 2017-18 season where Philipp Grubauer supplanted Holtby as the starter, but struggled in the first two games of the first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The rest was history, with Holtby’s performance in net leading the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup.

There’s not too much we can ascertain from Samsonov’s performance in the KHL playoffs. Scoring is typically much lower on the larger European ice in the KHL, and the league is considerably different than the NHL. That being said, his numbers are solid enough to provide some level of confidence in Samsonov to take over the crease if it were to come to that.

Another level of insurance for the Capitals is to evaluate who the starter will be for the first round of the playoffs during round robin play. These will be good readiness tests, since the Capitals would be facing off against the other top three teams in the Eastern Conference.

At this point, it’s pretty fair to assume that the Capitals will take their chances with Holtby manning the crease. His history of solid performances in the playoffs adds a layer of security to the team. After all, Holtby is fifth all-time in save percentage in the playoffs. Below are his career playoff stats, broken down by year (courtesy of Hockey-Reference):

holtby career playoffs stats

Overall, outside of the 2016-17 playoffs, Holtby has preformed mightily in the playoffs. One could argue that his performance in last season’s playoffs weren’t exactly his best, and that’s definitely an agreeable position. Even then, a career playoff save percentage close to .930 and a GAA close to 2.00 is extremely good.

This level of career performance in the playoffs makes Holtby nearly a no-brainer decision to be the starter for the playoffs. That being said, a pulse and performance check in the round robin games will be a good test to see where his game is after the world health crisis forced the NHL to end the regular season.

Who should start in goal for the Capitals?

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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