Because of 2018’s run, Braden Holtby will probably never pay for a drink or meal in the DC area again. And he played no small part, as he came in relief in the first round of a struggling Philip Grubauer and rescued the Caps out of a 2-0 series hole on the road. He was brilliant that spring, posting a .922 in 23 games and turning back both the Lightning and Knights in the last two rounds.
The thing is, those free drinks and meals might only do Holtby any good once or twice a year after this season.
Holtby is off to a woeful start, with a .862 SV% and a goals-against creeping up on 4.00. Holtby’s SV% at evens is just .868, and it’s not like he’s getting peppered, as the Caps have kept him at a respectable .919 expected SV%. He just hasn’t made the stops. And what’s worrying for Holtby, perhaps more so than the Caps as you’ll see, is that this isn’t not a one-off.
Holtby has been subpar the past two regular seasons, getting himself out of jail with that Cup run. He had a .911 last year and a .907 in that season before the parade. So this would be the third year in a row that Holtby hasn’t been up to it, which you can’t just chalk up to a spike of bad luck.
It couldn’t be more poorly times for Holtby for a couple reasons. One, he’s a free agent after the year, his first and perhaps only chance to cash in as an unrestricted free agent. While the gloss from backstopping a champ almost never wears off in the NHL, there won’t be the quite the same market for a goalie who has three seasons of too many whiffs. Perhaps a great defensive team would think they could shield him and could use “the experience,” but more and more teams are getting away from that kind of thinking.
Second, the Caps already seem to have a backup plan in place. Ilya Samsonov is already clawing starts away from Holtby. Samsonov had something of a rough go of it in his first year in North America last year in the AHL, but has some glittering numbers in the KHL and so far this year has been great in four games. He’ll certainly be getting more starts while they let Holtby try and find it again with less pressure.
While Holtby’s name will go down in Capitals history, his play is making it less and less likely the Caps are going to have any interest in signing him. They have the space, but have Nicklas Backstrom to re-sign (if they so choose) and room to leave themselves to improve. Most of the rest of the core of this team is locked in, though Alex Ovechkin will see his contract run out after next year, and he’ll be given pretty much whatever he wants. Having freedom in the cap will be ideal for the Caps just in case, which means Holtby doesn’t fit.
What’s gone wrong for Holtby is hard to pinpoint. He was certainly overworked there for a while, having 73, 66, and 63 starts the three years before he fell off the table. But at 30 he shouldn’t be fatigued that much. Generally we think of goalies having longer aging curves than skaters, but Holtby and Martin Jones seem to be doing their best to disprove that. It could be that Holtby is missing the tutelage of Mitch Korn, who followed Barry Trotz to the Islanders. But the first year of his decline was with Korn around.
Holtby really couldn’t have timed this worse. In some sense, it couldn’t actually be better timing for the Caps.