The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.
Today's question: Which Braden Holtby are we most likely to see this season: February Holtby or playoff Holtby?
Tarik: The season ended in the best way imaginable for the Capitals as a team. It also ended in the best way imaginable for Braden Holtby as an individual.
There’s no disputing the fact that Holtby endured the toughest regular season since he broke into the NHL.
The 28-year-old posted career-worst marks in both save percentage (.907) and goals against average (2.99). He also ended up with 34 wins, his lowest total in a full season.
Holtby also lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer entering the playoffs.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity, he quietly went about rebuilding his game so that if he were needed again, he’d be ready. And, of course, his number was called just a couple of games into the first round.
After replacing Grubauer in Game 2, Holtby was the best goalie in the playoffs—and it wasn’t all that close. Among goalies who appeared in at least 12 postseason games, Holtby’s .922 save percentage was tied for second best (with Connor Hellebuyck and ranked behind only Marc Andre Fleury’s .927). Holtby’s 2.16 goals against average, meanwhile, was tops.
And then there was ‘The Save’ in the waning moments of Game 2 of the Final. I’m not sure there’s a Stanley Cup in Washington if Holtby didn’t get his stick on that Alex Tuch layup, preserving the Caps’ 3-2 win.
Whether it was mental fatigue or physical fatigue or something else that led to Holtby’s midseason slump, we can be sure of this much: it was the first protracted rough patch of his career. More important than the struggles, though, he figured out how to ‘reset’ himself on the fly. Many top goalies who have enjoyed staying power over the years, guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, to name a couple, have all had to do that from time-to-time, and now Holtby knows he’s got that ability, too.
In the span of seven weeks, Holtby rewrote his franchise’s history and how everyone—including himself—will view his 2017-18 season.
Struggles? What struggles?
That’s a long-winded way of saying I’d be shocked if Holts doesn’t pick up right where he left off in Las Vegas.
JJ: A shocking proportion of the Caps' fan base has completely taken Holtby for granted for much of his Capitals career, labeled him a poor playoff performer and pointed to Grubauer as a better long-term option in net. Hopefully, all of those doubters have now seen the light.
Holtby has been consistently great in both the regular season and the playoffs throughout his entire career with only a few hiccups, and last season's slump was by far his worst. Grubauer rightly got the nod heading into the playoffs as the hotter of the two netminders, but any continued doubts anyone has regarding whether or not Holtby is a great goalie were officially put to rest during last season's playoff run.
Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, Marc-Andre Fleury's name was penciled in as the Conn Smythe winner. Holtby outplayed him and outplayed him badly:
Holtby: 5 GP, 4-1 record, .916 save percentage, 2.62 GAA
Fleury: 5 GP, 1-4 record, .853 save percentage, 4.09 GAA
But JJ, what about the 2017 playoffs?
Holtby's 2017 postseason was his worst postseason and that was a major factor in the team's second-round loss to Pittsburgh. For his career, however, Holtby has a .929 save percentage in the playoffs which ranks third all-time. He also boasts a 2.04 postseason GAA, the best among all active goalies and 12th all-time.
Why am I throwing these numbers at you? Because Holtby is a great goalie who, like all goalies, is subject to slumps from time to time. For some unknown reason, there has been a tendency to define Holtby by his slumps instead of his overall body of work which is beyond reproach.
The way Holtby rebounded from last season's slump showed how strong a netminder he is mentally. I have zero doubt that he will enter the season in top form.
Fatigue is the only factor I find concerning. There's no Grubauer behind Holtby who can step in for 35 games this season. Instead, it will be Pheonix Copley as backup, a goalie with a grand total of two NHL games worth of experience.
Limiting Holtby to about 60 games would be ideal, but I am doubtful that is going to happen this season. Otherwise, I have no doubt we will see the normally dominant Holtby once again.
Other key Caps questions
- How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
- Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
- Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
- Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
- Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?