Capitals

Capitals

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.     

Braden Holtby enjoyed another Braden Holtby-like regular season, which is to say he was outstanding—again. He led the league in wins and shutouts, while finishing top-4 in both goals against average and save percentage. Something felt a little different in the playoffs, though. Holtby’s numbers were pedestrian—or worse—as the Caps were eliminated in the second round. Inconsistent goaltending was not the sole reason for the Caps’ early ouster, but Holtby’s struggles can’t be overlooked, either, when assigning blame.

Today's question: Was this is a blip on the radar for Holtby or a concern going forward at a position where confidence is critical?

Sorenson: I have absolutely no doubt that Braden Holtby will bounce back. And my reasoning is actually two-fold. First of all, yes his numbers were inconsistent, but I would argue that much of that was a result of some shaky play in front of him. Yes there were goals that Holtby said he wants back and he will be the first to take blame. But the blame doesn’t lay completely on him, which means essentially he doesn’t have that much from which to bounce back. Having said that, though, Holtby is a rebound-type of player. He has proven his mental toughness time and again, as evidenced most by his response after a loss, or being pulled from a game. Last season, after being benched against the Leafs in the beginning of January, Holtby rattled off five straight wins including three shutouts. He was benched again in the middle of the month and went on a seven-game win streak with one shutout. Holtby has proven he has the mental fortitude to bounce back from any performance he feels was below his best.

 

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Regan: The criticism of Braden Holtby after this season has been one of the more surprising reactions I have seen from Caps fans. Holtby won the Vezina last year as the top netminder in the NHL and is a Vezina finalist after a season in which he managed a .925 save percentage, 2.07 GAA and nine shutouts. Yes, he was bad this postseason or, at the very least, he was not as good as the team needed him to be. But this was his fifth postseason as the starter and he was brilliant in each of the four before that. Brilliant. He never posted a save percentage less than .922 and went into the postseason with best save percentage in NHL history. Ever. Even after this postseason, his .932 is second all-time and still the top among all active goalies. How can anyone reasonably argue he is not a clutch goalie? I keep seeing people say the Caps should ship him to Vegas or trade him. Why? Because Philipp Grubauer looked good in the 24 games he played last season? This is nonsense. Ultimately, we do not know how good Grubauer will be as a starter. Even if you believe Grubauer has the potential to be a Vezina-caliber goalie, the Caps already have a Vezina-caliber goalie on the roster in Holtby. Best case scenario for Grubauer is that he becomes a starter as good as Holtby. No, I am not worried about a bounce back from one of the best goalies in the NHL. I am worried about the sanity of people who have forgotten how consistently spectacular Holtby has been and are ready to ship him out of town after an inconsistent performance in 13 games this postseason.

El-Bashir: Indeed, Holtby scuffled through a postseason that, in the blunt words of GM Brian MacLellan, was not “up to his standards.” That said, Holtby doesn’t even rank on my list of concerns heading into next season. (And if you’ve been following this series, you know I’ve got some concerns.) No. 1, he’s in his physical prime. Sure, he’s logged some hard miles, having played in more games and faced more shots than any other goalie since the start of the 2014-15 season. But he’s healthy, takes excellent care of himself and doesn’t turn 28 until September. So there’s no reason for me to believe that any of his physical skills are about to start eroding. No. 2, Holtby is as resilient as any goaltender that I’ve covered. He bounces back from adversity time and again—and we’ve all seen it. Getting pulled might be one of the most humbling experiences in all of sports. It can play on a goalie’s mind. It can shake one’s self-confidence. It can make a netminder wonder if the coaches and/or his teammates have lost belief in him. It doesn’t happen often, but when it has over the past three seasons, Holtby is a remarkable 12-2-0 with two shutouts after being sent to the bench. Some of that is a function of playing for a good team. Most of it, though, is Holtby’s ability to “park” a bad performance and prevent negative thoughts from festering. Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90-percent mental. The other half is physical.” I’d argue that the same is true about tending goal in the NHL. And Holtby’s history has proven that he’s able to put—and keep—poor performances in the rearview.

 

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