Barry Trotz routinely insists that he believes in Braden Holtby. After a recent loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, the Capitals coach referred to his slumping goaltender as a “rock since the day I’ve been here the last four years.”
But Holtby’s ongoing problems this season protecting the net have Trotz considering something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago: benching the longtime Capitals star.
After a 4-0 loss Tuesday to the Anaheim Ducks, Trotz said the Capitals could go with backup Philipp Grubauer “for a bit” while Holtby, 28, tries to right his game.
In Anaheim, Holtby was benched for the seventh time this season after giving up three goals on only nine shots.
“We’ll sit down with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] and our goaltending coaches just to see what the best thing for the long haul is,” Trotz told reporters.
Holtby showed signs of promise in last week’s Stadium Series game when he stopped 27 shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but was given the hook in the second period against the Ducks.
Holtby previously said he has to do a better job of focusing on “the controllables” amid his slump. The former Vezina Trophy winner has now lost seven of his past eight starts and finished February with a .873 save percentage.
Of Holtby’s seven benchings, four have come since the All-Star break. Before that, Holtby had been the anchor for the Capitals’ defense while they sorted through growing pains with two rookie defenseman. He went into the break with a .914 save percentage and a 2.33 goals against average.
Since the break, Holtby has given up four goals per game. On the season, Holtby is now allowing a career-worst 3.03 goals per game — a steep decline from his 2.07 goals against average from last season.
His struggles haven’t been entirely his fault. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan brought in two new defensemen prior to the trade deadline because he knew the position needed an upgrade.
Still, there isn’t much of a margin for error in the standings. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers are within two points of leading the Metropolitan Division.
Grubauer has been impressive every time the Capitals have gone to him lately. He’s won his past four starts and has a .922 save percentage in 25 games this season.
The Capitals have always been high on Grubauer, which is why they haven’t traded him despite Holtby being entrenched as the team’s No.1 goalie. Grubauer, 26, would likely be a full-time starter elsewhere. He is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and the cash-strapped Capitals might not be able to bring him back.
If Grubauer, however, supplants Holtby for the rest of the season, the Capitals will have an interesting choice to make. Holtby is under contract until 2020 and is making $6.1 million per year.
For now, Trotz said Holby will work to get his game in order.
“Everybody goes through some dry spells and he’s having one right now really,” Trotz said.