Braden Holtby was the toast of not only the Washington Capitals but the NHL because of his breakout performance during last year's playoffs. His play sparked talk about his being a franchise goaltender and possibly even a candidate to make Canada's 2014 Olympics roster.
That's a lot of hype for a 23-year-old with a grand total of 35 NHL games to his name. Nothing like a lockout to bring everything back to zero, as Holtby was sent to the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, because he was still eligible to go down to the minors.
"We were a little worried about his mindset coming back to Hershey," associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said. "But he's been so focused and dialed-in and it just seems there's another level of maturity to him this season."
Holtby, who has a 2.71 goals-against average and .917 save percentage entering Thursday's action, by all accounts has handled the move back to the AHL as well as possible. But what remains to be seen is how this stint back in Hershey affects his long-term development for when the lockout ends and the Caps need him again.
"I think it's important that he continue the momentum that he gained from last year," Bears coach Mark French said. "I think a young guy needs to continue to play. So I think his ability to come down and play the amount he's played for us certainly keeps the momentum going, keeps his development going through the lockout."
Holtby's momentum last spring was something special. Not only did he put up 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but his fiancee, Brandi, gave birth to the couple's first son, Benjamin Hunter.
He was able to enjoy the spotlight, if even for a few weeks. He said it wasn't a hard transition to go back to Hershey, where he played most of last season, but acknowledged it doesn't mean the lockout has been easy.
"I think it was more that there wouldn't be any NHL in general. I mean as a fan, a player, it's what you live your life based around, basically. So that's the hardest part to take," Holtby said. "I'm very thankful to be here to get to play."
The Capitals are thankful for that, too. Just having him be able to see live shooters and experience game situations is a positive, as some NHL goalies just wait around for the lockout to end. Kolzig said there's no negative aspect to his being with the Bears.
"I still got to work on technical things and whatnot," Holtby said. "The main thing, though, is just being able to stay in shape, playing games. Keeping my mind sharp and when it gets going it'll be an advantage."
Given the uncertainty of collective bargaining talks, no one knows when the NHL season will get going. So Holtby continued his minor league stint Thursday night at the AHL Showcase at Verizon Center, the place where his legend grew last spring.
It was a welcome back of sorts for Holtby, but teammates wouldn't know that the young goaltender was a rising star by the way he's approaching this season.
"He's doing great. He came back just like another guy," veteran goaltender Dany Sabourin said. "Not 'Hey, look what I did last year.' He came back, it was a brand new season."
It would've been understandable had Holtby been at least bummed by the situation. But until late in the 2010-11 season when he was sent back to Hershey when Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth were healthy, this wasn't a demotion.
This was what Kolzig called a "trickle-down" effect that's also forcing prospect Philipp Grubauer to develop in the ECHL with the Reading Royals instead of with Hershey. And Holtby understood the situation enough to make the best of it.
"So he took it as a bonus. He could've come down with the wrong attitude, but he came down with the exact opposite," Kolzig said. "He's starting to become more of a leader on and off the ice. And not in an arrogant way, 'Look what I did last year, I shouldn't be down here.' He's been great, great with his teammates and he gives the guys an opportunity to win almost every single night."
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