Capitals goalie Braden Holtby began the season as the organization’s clear starter and finished it in limbo, no more certain of his future than his general manager or his coach.
Holtby’s solid start – a .925 save percentage through his first 22 appearances – was followed by a steep decline as he navigated a less aggressive style of play encouraged by coach Adam Oates and goaltender coach Olie Kolzig.
By December, Holtby, 24, was in an awkward three-goalie time share with teammates Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer. By early February, general manager George McPhee had reportedly said that Washington’s goalies had cost the team 10 standings points. On March 5 the team traded for veteran Jaroslav Halak, who started 12 of the final 19 games as the Caps pushed for a playoff spot.
“If anyone feels, especially in management, that someone is going to give our team a better chance to win, that’s what their job is to do,” Holtby said last week. “My job is to stop pucks when I’m asked to, to give our team a chance to win when I’m asked to. And throughout the year, there’s a few times where I didn’t do a good enough job of it.”
His overall save percentage was .915, which ranked 26th in the NHL. At even strength, however, Holtby’s save percentage was .930 percent. That was 15th among all goalies.
Advanced metrics dispute the idea that goalies have much control over their save percentage when on the penalty kill. But if Holtby’s numbers were better than they seemed, it’s also true that he never found a consistent level of play. And even at season’s end, it was clear he and Oates weren’t on the same page.
“I would argue with him on that. But that’s his feeling right? And a coaches’ job is to get young guys to fight through change,” Oates said. “Tiger Woods makes changes, Cal Ripken went through three batting changes in his career. Athletes change. You have to improve. Nobody is good enough.”
The future may not be quite as murky as it appears. Holtby waits with everyone else to see if owner Ted Leonsis will make any offseason changes in management or the coaching staff after Washington failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years.
But there aren’t many other internal options in goal. Halak is an unrestricted free agent and had a late-season tiff with Oates after denying that he begged out of playing a game in St. Louis against his former team. At the time the Caps were still alive for a playoff berth.
McPhee has long refrained from paying high prices for goalies, preferring to promote from within. Kolzig was the last Washington goalie signed to a long-term, expensive contract and he left the team after the 2008 season.
But with Neuvirth now gone, the only young goalie who is a realistic option next season is Grubauer, 22. He posted a .925 save percentage in his 17 NHL games. In 28 games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, Grubauer had a .916 save percentage, which ranked 20th at that level.
Barring an unlikely move to re-sign Halak or bringing in another veteran goalie this summer, for now the net appears to be Holtby’s to lose heading into training camp in September. The goalie praised Kolzig and credited him for helping find a hybrid solution to those mid-season style changes. They used the long, bleak stretch in December and early January when Holtby started just six games out of 20, to refine his technique again. But there’s still debate over how far they went.
“Nothing against what the philosophy was with the changes,” Holtby said. “I think it just had to do with my personality, my natural instincts that didn’t quite coincide with the changes and that led to a lot of second guessing myself and a lot of over-thinking things. The moment you start doing that you start to struggle and once you struggle your confidence goes down a bit. That’s something to learn from.”