Braden Holtby (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Braden Holtby has always been steady for the Capitals, but Washington coach Barry Trotz has helped make this Holtby’s breakout year. Holtby’s game has benefitted greatly from Trotz’s stifling defensive style of play.
Braden Holtby won’t win the Vezina Trophy this season. Plainly, barring some sort of catastrophic incident, the award is going to go to Montreal’s Carey Price. But earning the nod as a top contender might be enough to legitimize just how far Holtby has come under coach Barry Trotz.
Trotz, known leaguewide as a coach with an aptitude for defensive hockey and one who has made a career of it, brought his style with him to Washington this summer and over the course of 71 games has changed the fortunes of not only the Capitals, but his starting goaltender, as well.
None of this is to say that Hotlby necessarily needed much of his game to change. He has been a steady goaltender for the Capitals since breaking in as a starter in 2012-13. Prior to 2012-13, Holtby had suited up for 21 games, winning 14 of those outings. But that was a small sample size – not enough games to truly get a read on what the young goaltender was capable of.
In his first full season in 2012-13, the lockout-shortened season, he won 23 of his 36 games, posting a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. He followed that up with a 23-win season in 2013-14 combined with a 2.85 GAA and .915 SP, but he lost the starting job and split time with Philipp Grubauer, Michal Neuvirth and, later, Jaroslav Halak.
But with Trotz, Holtby, 25, has once again become Washington’s starter. And the choice by Trotz to go with Holtby has paid off in great ways. Even just looking at Holtby’s base numbers paints a picture of a goaltender who is much improved.
His 2.19 GAA is the sixth best mark in the NHL of goaltenders that qualify for the league leaders list and the lowest of his career if you don’t include Holtby’s 14-game stint in 2010-11. The same goes for his SP, which is eighth best in the NHL at .924 and, again, the best total he has posted excluding that brief look as a 21-year-old. And his eight shutouts match the total he posted in the last two seasons combined.
There are two big ways in which Trotz has been able to influence Holtby’s game to allow for him to make such great strides. One is the defensive play of the entire team, while the other, bringing in goaltending guru Mitch Korn, has had a more direct benefit for Holtby.
Korn, who has worked with Pekka Rinne, Tomas Vokoun, Martin Biron, Chris Mason, Grant Fuhr and Dominik Hasek, is widely regarded as one of the most talented goalie coaches in the sport. He followed Trotz from Nashville to Washington, and, while Holtby had a rough start to the year, Korn’s training seems like it’s paying off now.
“It’s muscle memory. We’re breaking down skills into little pieces for him,” Korn told Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski in November. “It’s not to say the guys who came before us did anything wrong, but hockey evolves. He needed to change.”
And that change has taken hold and Holtby’s game has rebounded in a big way.
But part of him being able to play the way he has this season has been due to the team in front of him. Over the past two campaigns, Holtby has been in the top 10 when it comes to starting goaltenders who face the most shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
In 2012-13, Holtby was saddled with stopping 31.67 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the sixth most in the NHL of goalies who played at least 1,000 5-on-5 minutes. Other goaltenders in that range were Ondrej Pavelec, Ryan Miller, James Reimer, and Devan Dubnyk, who was then with the bottom-feeding Edmonton Oilers. The following season, 2013-14, held more of the same as Holtby faced 31.94 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, the seventh most of goalies who saw 1,000 minutes at even strength. Again, Reimer, Miller, and Dubnyk were comparable.
During those seasons where 5-on-5 shot volumes were exceedingly high, Holtby still managed outstanding SP marks of .931 and .930, respectively. However, when you’re facing that many shots on a nightly basis, not even the best goaltenders will be able to weather the storm.
Thankfully, that’s where Trotz comes in. This season, at 5-on-5, Holtby has faced 27.56 shots per 60 minutes – more than four less than the previous two campaigns. The result has, again, been a SP of .930. However, the difference comes when you calculate goal totals.
Stopping 93 percent of shots when you’re facing 32 of them per 60 minutes equates to roughly 2.25 goals against over that span. Lessening the shot total works out to nearly one-third of a goal fewer allowed. Over the course of a season – or in this case, the roughly 3,000 minutes at 5-on-5 Holtby will play – that’s more than 16 fewer goals against at even strength. That can make a big difference over the course of a season.
There has long been debate about whether or not a coach’s system can make a goalie – it’s one of the arguments people often use against Martin Brodeur because he played during the New Jersey Devils trap era. But Holtby has shown that he can stop that vast majority of pucks that come his way, but sometimes he needs a bit of help. Trotz – and Korn, for his efforts – has created a system to provide Holtby that support and it’s making him shine brighter than he ever has before.
The Washington net has been a revolving door in recent years with 10 goaltenders suiting up for the Capitals over the past seven seasons. In Holtby, however, it looks like Washington has found a netminder to hang their hat on, and Trotz is just as much to thank.