The Goalie Guild

Braden Holtby and the Gift of Opportunity

Fourteen nights later, I finally had a chance to dissect the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a much wider lens, and from a wider perspective. By doing so, I came to the conclusion that what Braden Holtby experienced over the last four weeks stemmed from a rare gift of opportunity, one given to (or earned by) maybe two percent of the entire pro goalie population over the last 10 years.

Back on March 9, the Hershey Bears netminder allowed five goals on 29 shots in a rough 6-1 loss to the St. John’s IceCaps. He was lifted after playing 53:50 minutes that night, and skated off the ice with an embarrassing .828 save percentage. In his previous start (March 3), he stopped 17 Binghamton Senators shots in a fairly routine shutout performance. Before that, however, he went 0-3-1 and gave up 12 goals on 98 shots, a feeble .878 SV%.

This trend of statistical inconsistency was a small sample size of what he accomplished in the AHL this season; a 20-15-2 record with a 2.60 goals-against average, a .906 SV% and three shutouts. Talking to other scouts and goalie coaches during the season, it was clear that his play was simply not good enough, especially when I considered what he had accomplished in the past two weeks.

Photo Copyright Tom Turk – Piratical Photography

From everything I learned, his experience in Hershey actually seemed eerily similar to one of those dreaded sophomore slumps. Even though this was his third season in the AHL, it was his time to go through some of the scary pitfalls that many second-year pro goalies can’t escape.

But they say things often happen in threes, right? This was his third AHL season, he’s now the third rookie Capitals goalie in three years to be leaned upon in the playoffs (Varlamov and Neuvirth), and now he only needs to be victorious in three more rounds of the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait, that’s not fair at all. Twenty wins, a 2.60 GAA and a .906 SV% isn’t good enough in the AHL…but now there are people talking about how he’s only three rounds away from winning the toughest trophy in all of sports?

To be honest, it’s not that far fetched. Not for this guy, at least. Not for the winner of a grueling seven-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Boston Bruins. I mean, after a 2-1 overtime win in Game 7, after he stopped 31 shots to silence the former two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, he etched his name in the history books of the Washington Capitals organization.

Behind some sassy glove saves with “goalie swagger” tacked on for good measure, big bendy and stretchy toe saves off tipped shots, and even a crossed-arm pose a la’ Carey Price, Holtby showcased a bit of everything in the first round of the playoffs. More importantly, he did it by winning four games, posting a .940 SV% (233 saves on 248 shots) and giving up an average of just two goals per game.

Yes, an otherwise unaware rookie goaltender recalled from the minors due to injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth stepped up, and with a blind faith in his abilities, somehow, against most logical preconceived notions of recent goalie trends, came out the other side as a complete stud.

In fact he accomplished so many impressive feats against Boston that now his expectations have soared. A large contingency of Capitals fans and analysts could have asked for nothing more from Holtby in the Quarterfinals, and now many of them will expect nothing less in the Semifinals.

Facing the Facts of Holtby’s Opportunity

Again, as I sat back and took all of this in, I revealed certain facts to myself. This was a crucial part of the scouting process, as I simply didn’t allow otherwise “impossible” feats by a prospect to blur my inner vision of what I had seen in the past few years. I also didn’t let any in-depth stats I found act as the only indicator of how well he may have performed. I balanced the two, and I treated everything in his past (leading up to today) as a separate entity from all other similar situations with other goalies.

No matter what I came up with, I knew that he was who he has become, and his past experiences are a part of what we will continue to see from him in the future. He was highly touted ever since his final season in the Western Hockey League, but he still made some scary and notable mistakes in the first round, proving he still has a lot to learn. As unique as his game is in the blue paint, so too is his current playoff experience.

That experience, along with the one that will come in a few short days when the Eastern Conference Semifinals begins, is the result of an extremely rare opportunity.

Because this situation with Holtby is so rare, I couldn’t compare it to anything that may have similarly happened in the past. I drew comparables and found consistencies, but no two situations are ever exactly alike, especially since no two goalies are ever exactly alike. I’ve seen #2 goalies excel in the playoffs with no warning, but aside from Michael Leighton a few years ago, I was struggling to think of a time when a #3 goalie had playoff success like Holtby had against Boston.

It’s true what they say, though. Some goalies are considered “chosen” for certain things, and even though opportunities only fall into a goalie’s lap once every blue moon, when it happens, it happens. It’s an unmistakable experience to watch unfold, it’s coveted by goalies, truly something to die for. You know it when you see it, just like when we saw it with Cam Ward and Patrick Roy, and even more recently with Antti Niemi.

There are only 16 goalies that get the opportunity every year to play in the playoffs. Very few #3 goalies get that same chance, so it is quite a magical story so far for Holtby.

So yes, rookies can win the Stanley Cup. They can have tremendous success in the playoffs. It can also ignite an explosively game-altering NHL career, too. In fact, a legitimate dynamic exists where the more structured and organized systematic play found in the NHL does help a rookie goalie read plays and react with more certainty and confidence. Sometimes they’ll also get more a more consistent defensive effort from their teammates, too.

Regardless of how much these things helped Holtby against the Bruins, he clearly didn’t skirt quietly along the outer edges of that battle. He didn’t try to avoid any unnecessary wounds, and he didn’t shy away or crumble under the pressure of his rare opportunity, either. No, I’d say Holtby truly dove head-first into the middle of the bloody melee, and he came out as the most valuable warrior for Washington’s surprising series win.

He wanted it bad enough, he made his presence felt, he displayed the composure of an experienced veteran, and he produced the results. Another fact? With a feat such as this, he became the story for the media, he became the star of the series, and he was the biggest edge for the Capitals.

Every player knew it. Dale Hunter knew it. I knew it. You knew it.

Holtby’s talented, no doubt. So Because he has seized this rare opportunity, there’s no reason to believe he can’t win the next battle, right?

Anything could happen, I guess. He has the opportunity.

Facing the Facts of Holtby’s Potential

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. “Braden Holtby plays loud and proud.”

Interestingly enough, that’s not the only Holtby phrase I’ve said, seen or heard over the past two weeks.

“An authentic Canadian dynamic butterfly goaltender,” is another one. I don’t know to what degree since I’m not one myself, but goalie coaches to the north must be extremely proud of his ability to play a free-spirited, yet technically-sound style. He’s not only unique due to his many mannerisms and quirky Holtby-isms, but he’s the epitome of exactly what Canadian goalie coaches and scouts everywhere want to create and find; a potent puck-stopper with size, speed, finesse, reflexes, and a solid positional foundation that can be strengthened and refined over time.

Photo Copyright Tom Turk – Piratical Photography

Maybe the most popular phrase of them all, however, would be “Held by Holtby!” at the pitch of NBC Sports broadcaster Doc Emrick’s everlasting voice. This phrase was reinforced by Pierre McGuire’s goofy post-game interview in which he portrayed a potential scenario where Holtby shirts would be worn for so long by Capitals fans that they eventually shrunk into perfect bibs for their babies.

Because of all the positive press and his display of unique traits on the big stage, Holtby quickly developed somewhat of a cult following. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it has placed certain expectations upon his shoulders. Just look at James Reimer in Toronto, or maybe even with Corey Crawford a little bit (imagine if he won Game 7 against Vancouver in last season’s Western Conference Quarterfinals).

Furthermore, ranked as one of the Top-10 goaltenders in my Top-150 Prospects Rankings for quite some time, I can’t even begin to list all of the traits that proved why Holtby belonged in such a special group of future NHL starters for so long. In fact, when I went through my lengthy checklists for everything I look for and evaluate in a long-term keeper, there were way more positives than negatives.

He has solid size and a near-optimal frame at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. He has raw-powered athleticism and flexibility. He has that “borderline cocky” confidence, one that doesn’t seem to waver under pressure. He has very quick feet and hands, and a flair for the dramatic. He reads plays and a puck’s trajectory well due to solid vision, and his body can lengthen and condense quickly due to natural instincts and reflexes.

He can be very compact at times, but he can also make himself big due to a wider stance. He’s aggressive and clearly not afraid to poke check, either. He has a good active stick, although it’s not always the most disciplined. The same goes for his glove hand — we’ve seen some nice snags, but we’ve also seen some bobbled, fumbled pucks and bad rebounds as a result.

He said the right things when the cameras were on him in the first round, he displayed a visibly competitive drive, he worked hard in the crease despite making a few mistakes, he paid attention to details to the best of his ability, and he became a little more controlled as the series went along. Again, there were mistakes, but he also showed an ability to bounce back strong as well, which is maybe the most promising trait of them all.

He’s the complete opposite of the dreaded “robotic blocker” and a quality model of what you want to see in a young and talented goaltender.

Facing the Facts of Holtby’s Future

Despite all of these positives, I feel like it is now my duty to remind everyone that in the big picture, and from my specific wider point of view, Holtby has yet to really prove anything. The fact is, there are still many questions left to be answered, and I still see some areas of his game that he can vastly improve.

— I wonder how he’ll respond to a team that applies relentless pressure to the front and sides of his net. I don’t think Boston did a good enough job of that at all in the first round, and other teams will do their homework to make sure that’s a staple in their strategy. In fact, now that there’s some tape out there for his next opponent to dissect, I also wonder how long he can remain a Dynamic Entity. The Bruins did not throw enough garbage in the crease, but give credit to the Capitals for being more committed to team defense, too.

— I wonder how he responds within a game, or over the course of the next series, if his opponent visibly chips away some of his rhythm, timing and/or confidence. I don’t think Boston took advantage of some stretches of play where they had momentum on their side long enough to really inflict much damage. They didn’t make things tough enough for him in the first three or four games, and at times, I felt like the Bruins gave him too much respect. I don’t think they feasted on some of his juicy rebounds, either. Amazingly, every game in that series was a one-goal duel.

— I wonder how he responds to a more grueling schedule. A seven-game stretch (remember, he only played two AHL games in March, and six in the NHL from March 1 to April 7) in the playoffs can be fueled by sheer adrenaline alone, so I want to see how he moves and reacts when he’s a little more tame, and maybe filled with a little more fear. Who knows, that might even smooth him out a little more, make him a little more calm.

— I wonder what type of elements he displays in the realm of mental toughness. I want to see if he can stay even-keeled in the face of more frustrations. I want to see if he can control his emotions in the midst of more body contact. I want to see if he can stay balanced and square to shooters when he’s forced to move laterally on a more consistent basis. I want to see how he battles against a power-play unit that has a little more potency than Boston, who went just 2-for-23 (8.7%) in the series.

— I also wonder if Holtby can display a little more patience on his skates in the next round. I wonder if he makes any more egregious poke-checking errors, or any brutal VHS fails, or allows any inopportune rebounds that result in one-goal or overtime losses. I wonder how his decision-making will hold up when his energy within a game wanes or drops below the “peak-performance” level.

Photo Copyright Tom Turk – Piratical Photography

Who knows, right? Maybe he’ll still slice through any difficult screens with ease. Maybe he’ll showcase more long-term consistency despite another bad goal, tough bounce or loss. Maybe he’ll continue to exhibit a high level of energy and stay polished with his technique. Maybe he’s a way better penalty-killing goalie than we’ve already seen.

Only time will tell, I guess. Seven games is simply not a big enough sample size to truly know what Holtby is capable of doing in the future, and I think even the most passionate Holtby fan can come to terms with that. But does he have the potential, however, to display an impressive competency in these areas as the playoffs continue? Absolutely.

Remember, so much of what makes a prospect “valuable” or “risky” is sheer optics. Everyone considers and evaluates a goaltender’s performance a little differently, and the general consensus may not be so “general” after all. Although, in Holtby’s case, what he accomplished in seven games has turned tons of non-believers into life-long fans.

For those that already admired his skills and savvy attitude before the playoffs started, I’m sure you’re the first to agree that he’s very easy to love, he’s very sharp and “locked in” during a game, and he’s very easy to consider as the long-term solution in Washington.

But as of right now, and in the foreseeable future, it will only get harder for Holtby to prove it.

Facing the Facts of Holtby’s Obstacles

Even with all of the positive traits and characteristics on display in the first round, I can’t be allowed to think they’re all going to continue at a high level. That’s a legitimate pitfall of goalie scouting, and from what I have witnessed over the last five years with other skilled rookie goaltenders, I know that I need to keep in mind that, especially in the playoffs, he still hasn’t really proved anything yet.

You might hear him say that same thing to certain media members over the next few days. You might hear that from other Capitals players and coaches, too. It’s a cliche, but only because it’s true in the sense of how a player or goalie must think if he is to continue play in a focused manner.

So as good as Holtby was against Boston, remember that he is still only 22 years old. He’s still only a rookie, and he still has to prove he can handle the pressure of the playoffs. At some point down the line, he will be exposed to the same obstacles and dangers and monsters as every other sophomore NHL goaltender before him.

If he continues to have success, some will even begin to consider him in the same category of a Cory Schneider or a Tuukka Rask. There’s nothing wrong with this; he shows all the signs of being another Schneider-like prospect in one or two more years. But if you’re not careful, you will erroneously put this young goaltender on a pedestal he hasn’t truly earned yet, and that’s never a good thing.

Concluding Thoughts on Holtby’s Gift of Opportunity

The gift of opportunity is not always “deserved” in the eyes of some, and there are many goalies that work their whole lives for a chance to start in the playoffs. Some goalies are not truly ready for the opportunity, and when they fail, are doomed to never receive one again. Others get chance after chance after chance, but fail to ever truly take advantage.

Therefore, it is my duty to continue reflecting a cautious optimism with Holtby. Not only do I naturally feel this way (yes, due in part to some elements found in Larry Sadler’s excellent series of articles on goalie evaluation and scouting), but I’ve also come to understand what can truly go wrong with prospects like Holtby. I’ve seen it happen before, and I know it could happen again.

I have read the signs, and I see greatness. I have understood the situation since March turned to April, and I know Holtby has been given the rare type of opportunity that any goalie would die for. I see what he has accomplished since then, and I am not only wildly impressed, I’m truly excited for his future.

But in the realm of goaltending, there’s a very thin line between a calling and a curse. Holtby has incredible long-term potential, yet it could disappear in an instant if he’s not careful. Self-inflicted or not, things could go wrong as quickly as they go right. It’s the playoffs, where anything can happen at any given moment, and where nothing is quite what it seems.

One of my favorite “old goalie adages” is, “You have to lose before you win, fail before you succeed.” Another one is that, “A goaltender is only as good as his last game.” It may seem unfair at times, but we have the mental capacity to realize that it’s still very true. No matter how successful Holtby was in the past, he still has to prove his worth every time a win is on the line.

My quest as a scout in this situation is therefore quite simple; uncover how much losing can be accepted before winning is always expected, consider how long each stage is likely to last, then report my findings to my readers. Holtby is a stellar prospect, and he’s very likely to be a full-blown starter in a few more years. In terms of skill and technique, he’s also one of the best 22-year-old goalies I’ve ever had the pleasure of scouting.

Now that he has gotten a taste of the sweet divinity of Stanley Cup Playoffs success, due to this rare gift of opportunity and his overall potential, he has even more to prove in the coming weeks.

No matter what happens, let’s just hope he can keep that gift from transforming into a curse.

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  1. Flesh Lives says:

    Can you compare it to Cam Ward in the Stanley Cup run of Carolina a few years back?

    • You will find comparables and some things in common, but remember that Braden was the #3 goalie for the Caps all season long … he spent most of his time in Hershey. Ward was a backup for Carolina the year he won the Cup, and only spent two games down in Lowell (AHL).

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