Through the first three seasons of his burgeoning NHL career, the most distinguishing characteristic about Braden Holtby wasn’t his puckhandling skills or his aggressive, never-say-die nature in net, but his unrelenting confidence.
A fiery competitor, he digested critiques from himself and others about how he needed to improve without showing the slightest signs of doubt or uncertainty, at least until this year, when Coach Adam Oates advocated a style change for all of the Washington Capitals’ goaltenders that had them playing deeper in the crease and relying more on reaction time and rebound control.
“Nothing against what the philosophy was with the changes,” Holtby said Monday. “I think it just had to do with my personality, my natural instincts that didn’t quite coincide with the changes, and that led to a lot of second-guessing myself and a lot of overthinking things. The moment you start doing that you start to struggle, and once you struggle, obviously your confidence goes down a bit.”
Several of the league’s top netminders, including Phoenix’s Mike Smith and the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, work farther back in the paint and use their uncanny reflexes to make saves. It’s a method that gives them more time to read a play and offers more opportunity to make the post-to-post plays to stop a back-door chance or a cross-ice pass for a shot from the opposite direction.
Oates wanted the Capitals to adopt that approach throughout the organization. The changes were a point of contention, though, as it resulted in the firing of long-time goalie coach and scout Dave Prior, who didn’t agree with molding each netminder in that image.
While Michal Neuvirth, now with Buffalo, and Philipp Grubauer, who finished the year with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, both acknowledged the challenges of learning a new approach at this stage in their playing careers, it was Holtby who appeared at odds with his actions on a nightly basis.
Oates says he never expected the transition to be immediate and sees even rough patches as a part of the improvement process.
“I like a lot of things about Holtby’s game. I do. But like everybody, he’s got holes in his game. I need him to be a little more consistent,” Oates said. “His reflexes are his gift, his intangibles are his gift, and I just want to tap into them a little bit more. He’s a young guy, and I like the fact that he wants to challenge me. I do. That’s an athlete that will eventually get better because he’s into it. The guys that don’t do that, they’re not really about getting better.”
Early on, Holtby, 24, talked about having to tweak his footwork and learn new reads on his angles because he wasn’t coming as far out of the net to challenge shooters. There were no instant results. Holtby looked unsure of his movements, and by playing deeper in the net, he had started allowing goals on long-range, perimeter shots.
While he made it through October and November with a 12-8-1 record and .925 save percentage, Holtby was facing an incredibly high volume of shots (33.2 per game) in his first 22 appearances. And given Washington’s defensive struggles, many were quality chances.
Combine that with even remote uncertainty about how he was trying to play, and once Holtby’s struggles began they became hard to stop. He allowed 38 goals on 293 shots (.870 save percentage) over only 12 appearances in December and January and lost his starting job to Grubauer. The low point came on Jan. 4 at Minnesota when, after allowing five goals on 11 shots, an expressionless Holtby pondered how he might regain his confidence.
That was the only start he received between Dec. 21 and Jan. 17, and during that time away from games, Holtby said he worked with goaltending coach Olie Kolzig to work some of his original, more aggressive tendencies back into his game. The Capitals denied a request to interview Kolzig at the conclusion of the regular season.
“Olie and I have been on the same page since day one. He’s been keeping me sane through everything,” Holtby said. “We talked about everything and we realized that I had to get back to where my natural instincts led me and we did that as a goaltender-goalie coach tandem, and I think towards the end of the season I think that paid off.”
In his final 14 games, a more assertive Holtby rebounded with a .927 save percentage. He went 8-2-2 in that stretch even though he didn’t see the bulk of the workload as the Capitals played trade-deadline acquisition Jaroslav Halak heavily.
But with Halak an unrestricted free agent, and barring any free agent additions, Holtby will start next season vying for playing time with Grubauer, and he’s determined to have this rocky year benefit him moving forward.
“I don’t think it was confidence in myself. I think it was confidence in what I was doing on the ice at the time,” Holtby said. “The lesson I’ve learned this year is how to battle that adversity, and next year will be easier in a way because I’ll be stronger in that aspect.”