The gap between the end of a disappointing fourth season with the Washington Capitals and the resulting turnover that soon followed felt like it had whipped past, so Braden Holtby had little time to dwell. First, he was stomaching the aftermath of the lowest save percentage and goals-against average of his brief NHL career, reconciling a strong final month with the confidence issues that preceded it.
But before long, a new regime was blowing into town, with it a repeated and concentrated commitment to the 24-year-old Holtby as its unequivocal starter. If general manager Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals have their druthers in their maiden season together, there will be no revolving door in the net, no four goalies cycling and causing confidence issues along the way. It will simply be Holtby, with free agent acquisition Justin Peters as the backup. Nothing complicated or confidence-threatening about that.
“I’ve heard it,” Holtby said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “It’s nice to have some confidence in you to start. But I always know in the past, and obviously the last few years, you’re only as good as the game you start next. It’s nice to have confidence in me that they believe in what I can do, and I do as well, but once we get on the ice, I want to fight for every game I can play and make sure that confidence is in the right place and it’s up to me to find it.”
Set back by changes to his goaltending style under former coach Adam Oates, Holtby started just once between Dec. 21 and Jan. 17, but closed the season strong with an 8-2-2 record over the final 14 games, once he returned to an approach that felt more natural. Now, he welcomes one of the NHL’s most renowned coaches at the position, armed with the quirky props Holtby happens to know well.
Playing in juniors with the Saskatoon Blades, Holtby, studied under John Stevenson, who employed the same screen boards, white pucks, mini black pucks and deflection boards used by Mitch Korn, who came from Nashville alongside Barry Trotz tasked with helping Holtby change.
“I knew the name and John really respected him a lot,” Holtby said. “I was pretty excited he’s coming here.”
With the Predators, Korn brought his goaltenders to a vision training facility in Minnesota and has planned a similar trip with Holtby. The sojourn will double as a bonding experience for the two, who have chatted this offseason but haven’t met in person, as well as lay the groundwork to improve Holtby’s puck tracking.
“It’s definitely the next thing when it comes to training athletes,” Holtby said, something Korn has echoed..
That’s not to discount the potential personal impact of having a goaltending coach like Korn, who replaced Olie Kolzig this offseason. Though Kolzig will remain with the Capitals in a part-time role, Korn’s methods have already trickled into the practice facility. During developmental camp, Philipp Grubauer was seen training with a medicine ball, the latest prop added by Korn, who used it to help Carter Hutton’s lateral agility last season.
“On the ice?” Holtby asked, when told about the medicine balls. He sounded intrigued. “Nice. Cool.”
Sharing time at various points with Grubauer, Jaroslav Halak and Michal Neuvirth in 2013-14, Holtby often was impacted by Washington’s puck possession issues, and of NHL goalies with at least 48 games played, only five faced more shots on average than Holtby. The year at-large produced similar unpredictability. He was yanked early in the second game versus Calgary, reached a nadir on Jan. 4 versus Minnesota – five goals on 11 shots – yet found a nice springboard into the offseason as the Capitals dealt with their first playoff absence since 2006-07.
“It was an exhausting season in a lot of ways. But at the same time I learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way,” Holtby said. “Once the season was done, it was mainly a disappointment we weren’t in the playoffs and we should’ve been with the group we had. That was there, but at the same time the changes happened pretty quick, so the excitement towards next year kind of overrode the disappointment pretty quickly.”
With a few more weeks left until he reports to Washington late August, Holtby is still training back home in Saskatchewan. The regular season brings enough film review, so Holtby hasn’t much dug into the issues of last year. But over a nine-minute interview he used some variation of the word “excited” six times. The new regime, it seems, has made an impression.
“It’s an exciting time right now,” Holtby said. “With the changes we’ve made, the additions we made with our staff and players, it’s exciting. I think all of us returning – I can’t speak for everyone else – but for myself it’s pretty easy to find the extra motivation to train and stuff, because of the excitement to get back on the ice with the group we have and the potential we have as a group already. It’s exciting. Motivation is easy when you have a group like that.”