If you've been following the Washington Capitals through this year's Stanley Cup playoffs you're aware of the heroics they have had in net. Braden Hotlby has emerged and taken the playoffs by storm, giving the Washington Capitals something they haven't had in ages - reliability in net.
Where did Holtby come from? Perhaps more importantly, what will his remarkable run through the playoffs mean for Washington moving forward?
If your knowledge of Braden Holtby is based purely on what you've seen in this year's playoffs, you're not alone. Unless you're a serious follower of the Washington Capitals you might be completely in the dark of where this young netminder came from.
Holtby was drafted by the Capitals with the 93rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. The 2009-10 season saw Holtby spend time both in the ECHL as well as the AHL, playing for the South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL) and the Hershey Bears (AHL). He found success almost immediately, turning in an impressive AHL performance that featured a 24-8-2 record with a 2.32 GAA, as reported by Hockey DB.
Holtby got his first taste of the NHL in 2010-11 when he was called on to start 12 games, while appearing in two others. He shined, compiling a 10-2-2 record with a minuscule 1.79 GAA. He showed tremendous poise in net that's usually only found in veteran netminders.
The 2011-12 season saw Holtby spend the vast majority of the year in the AHL while Washington used Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth in net. Injuries forced Washington to call on Holtby when their season was on the brink and a playoff spot still up for grabs. Holtby answered the call, finishing the year out with the Capitals while going 4-2-1 with a 2.50 GAA.
Washington made the playoffs. However, doubt persisted over whether a netminder with such a tiny amount of NHL experience (21 NHL games) could carry the Capitals through a deep playoff run, let alone through the first round.
If you've been watching the Capitals in the playoffs you're now up to speed. If not, here's one word to describe Holtby's playoff performance thus far - dependable. The Capitals have struggled to find any sort of consistency in net for the past several seasons. Tomas Vokoun, Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore have all patrolled the crease for the Capitals in recent years and each man has struggled to raise his game and be the difference maker the Capitals have sorely needed.
Cue Braden Holtby. He has been one of the best stories in this year's playoffs. Regardless of how far the Capitals advance, Holtby has proven that he is a fearless presence between the pipes despite his age (22) and lack of experience. He has played calm even under immense pressure, swatting away pucks while controlling rebounds that even the most experienced goaltender might struggle with.
Holtby's playoff success raises some interesting questions for 2012-13. Will Holtby be given the #1 job following his playoff effort? It appears at the very least he'll be given a shot. The Capitals have Holtby and Michal Neuvirth signed for the 2012-13. It's unclear whether Tomas Vokoun will be offered a new deal to provide added depth and experience. Regardless, Holtby is a lock to see NHL time beyond the current season.
For Washington, the best part of Holtby's rise to success might be financial. The young netminder has a tiny cap hit of $637,777 in 2011-12 and a $637,777 cap hit in 2012-13. That's pretty impressive when you consider he has all but matched New York's Henrik Lundqvist, a goalie making $6,875,000, in the second round. The Capitals regularly tread near the salary cap and players like Holtby allow the team to use their finances to bolster other areas on the ice. Simply put, he is a great example of getting the most out of your money.
The original question asked where Holtby's ceiling lies. Unfortunately, that question is pretty difficult to answer. It's important to not let a string of solid starts capture your imagination and run away with it. The sample size is far too small to draw any concrete conclusions. One stretch, or even one year of solid play, isn't enough to label a goaltender a star (cough, Steve Mason, cough). However, Holtby has several traits that give merit to the argument that he can and will be a star in the NHL.
Focus: If you haven't caught Holtby's ritual before games check out the video below (it's a bit shaky, but you get the idea). He visualizes his play on the ice well before the puck drops. He anticipates what will happen. He locks himself in the "hockey zone" before his teammates even take the ice. This focus isn't a trait you can teach. This focus should go a long way in helping Holtby prepare and deal with moments of great pressure, as we have seen in the 2012 playoffs.
Positioning: Holtby knows where he needs to be when he's in the crease. This might sound simple but it's a lot more difficult than it sounds. When a shot is fired, Holtby is almost always in the proper position to challenge the shot while blocking as much of the net as he can. Again, this is a trait that is pretty difficult to teach to a young goaltender that might have some bad habits. Holtby is starting out with great habits and it's leading to early success.
Patience: It's rare you see Holtby react too quickly, or too drastically to a shot. No wasted movement, no wasted energy. His patience plays a role in keeping his positioning sharp. This patience places pressure on the shooter, forcing the shooter to make a decision while allowing Holtby to react without tipping his hand.
Rebound Control: It's an underrated art to be able to control rebounds. Sure, announcers discuss it but it's an art that has no statistic tied to it - right? Wrong. Simply put, goals and quality scoring chances are limited when a goaltender is able to hold on to his rebounds. This forces the opposition to score on Holtby when he is in position and prepared as opposed to blasting a puck into an empty net off a rebound. Holtby keeps a tidy crease.
These four traits give credibility to the idea that Holtby will be a successful netminder for years to come. He has impressed but still has plenty of challenges ahead of him. He has handled pressure extremely well and has given the Capitals a breath of fresh air in net. The Caps finally have a man between the pipes that is rising to the challenge as opposed to falling below expectation. This fact alone should give Holtby plenty of playing time in 2012-13 and, if it goes well, could have us referring to him as one of the best young NHL goaltenders in the league.
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