“Reliably good” might not be the sexiest descriptor in sports, but when an NHL team finds a goalie who delivers such results, they should count their lucky stars. Few goalies beyond Henrik Lundqvist have fit that bill quite like Braden Holtby over recent years.
Still, just about every goalie goes through a crisis of confidence; even Lundqvist hasn’t been immune to questions surrounding certain stretches of play. Holtby was already struggling this season - he came into last night’s game with exactly a 3.00 GAA, a number startling by both its symmetry and its worrisome nature - and only saw it worsen, allowing three goals in just two periods in Washington’s loss to Anaheim.
It can’t be good to see your team literally double the opposition in shots on goal, yet lose 4-0.
The good news, but also the challenge, is that the Capitals have another option in net, and Philipp Grubauer appears to be a pretty excellent one in that. Rather than fighting it, the Caps should give him a real chance to prove himself, and possibly profit off of that ambition.
He didn’t have to do much against the Ducks on Tuesday, stopping all eight shots in relief of Holtby, but that appearance served as a reminder that he’s been quite effective when called upon. That goes for 2017-18 (a sparkling .922 save percentage in 25 appearances) and his career in general (a slightly better .923 save percentage in 91 games). Holtby, meanwhile, saw his 2017-18 save percentage dip to a worrying .907.
As Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post reports, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz & Co. seem to know that they might need to pivot, at least for a while.
“I think just like anything, we’ll make that decision based on that he’s played a lot of games and won a lot of games,” Trotz said. “So because he’s No. 1 doesn’t mean you don’t go with Grubi for a bit just so [Holtby] can settle his game. We’ll sit down with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] just to see what the best thing for the long haul is.”
So, that’s a bit of hedging, which is totally fair. Allow me to lay out a few reasons why the Capitals should embrace Grubauer as a real threat to Holtby, even if it’s only for the next month or so.
Motivation plus freshness
There’s little doubt that Braden Holtby is a highly motivated athlete.
Since 2014-15, Holtby leads all goalies in games played (250), wins (160), and shutouts (21) while maintaining an excellent .920 save percentage. Still, you wonder if that workload might be weighing on him a bit. That’s especially plausible after the last two seasons, when he might have blamed himself at least in part for the Capitals falling heartbreakingly short of a Stanley Cup despite dominant regular seasons.
While Holtby’s $6.1 million cap hit runs through 2019-20, Grubauer’s $1.5M expires after this season, making him a pending RFA.
At 26, Grubauer must be chomping at the bit to get an extended opportunity to show what he can do ... and yes, earn himself some money.
If the Capitals are worried about a “Here we go again” mentality, would a goalie who’s only enjoyed 95 games played spread out over six seasons give them a fresh outlook? From a scouting perspective, there’d likely be a lot more “tape” on a guy like Holtby (355 regular season games, 59 playoff appearances) than Grubauer.
Painful firsthand experiences
If nothing else, the Caps have seen how far a team can go while “riding the hot hand.”
Matt Murray is an immediate example, and he might stand as a template for how the Caps could handle things if Grubauer managed to take Washington far. Maybe they’d roll with Holtby and Grubauer for a bit before making a move? Murray helped the Penguins beat the Caps during the 2016 postseason, while injuries and a red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury flipped the script.
The most extreme example goes to the days before Holtby and Trotz.
During the 2010 postseason, the Canadiens went on an unlikely run with Jaroslav Halak, who only allowed three goals during the final three games of that memorable first-round series despite facing a ridiculous 134 shots on goal.
Despite that run, the Habs then had the courage to choose Carey Price over Halak during the ensuing off-season. These examples could show Washington that there’d be multiple routes if they give Grubauer an extended look, rather than giving him a very short leash.
What could have been?
Look, Holtby’s earned the right to be “the guy” in Washington’s net.
That said, the Capitals are already plagued by “What if?” questions. The Capitals won the last two Presidents Trophies, and also snagged one in 2009-10, yet they still lack a Stanley Cup ring. This franchise needs to turn over every stone to try to get Alex Ovechkin that elusive ring, even if it means ruffling some feathers.