The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Goaltender Braden Holtby back with new contract and ‘blank slate’

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

To him, it will be remembered as a week-long interruption during the summer of 2015, packed with flights, stress, negotiations, calls and questions — everything Braden Holtby would have preferred to avoid during the offseason months. It bridged the arbitration hearing held in Toronto, when the Washington Capitals made their case for the restricted free agent’s new salary, and Holtby’s camp countered in kind. It found resolution once the phone stopped ringing and the interviews ended, when Holtby could return to his lake house and, a five-year extension worth $30.5 million signed, relax.

“I hibernated after that to let it wear off so it wasn’t a big deal,” the goaltender said Wednesday.

Ignoring the obvious ursine connection to his still-bushy beard, Holtby returned to Kettler Capitals Iceplex — and the grind of training with positional coach Mitch Korn – feeling fresh, no worse for wear after tying franchise records with 73 regular-season appearances, 41 wins and nine shutouts. Now the franchise goaltender, Holtby took most of the summer off from skating, preferring to train in the gym, busy himself around the yard, play with his two children “and just try to escape from hockey.”

“The clearer my mind is during hockey season the better, and the less you can drain it the better you are,” he said. “The more excited you are, the easier is to prepare. You don’t feel it as a grind, you feel it as a challenge of being able to escape from a summer and clear your mind, coming in with a blank slate is key.”

He was acutely aware of the new pressures coming for his second full season as Washington’s starter, even before contract talks ramped up. Pressure to justify the term, which was never in debate, and the money, which was. Pressure to stay near the summit of his position, after a sterling 13 games in the playoffs, when he led the NHL with a .944 save percentage and 1.71 goals against average, and a fourth-place finish in Vezina Trophy voting. Pressure, by virtue of the Capitals’ offseason moves, to help them advance beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 1997-98.

[Braden Holtby at peace in the crease]

The contract talks, lasting longer than both Holtby’s camp and the Capitals initially hoped, disrupted the usual rhythms of his summer, but found resolution before August came and he started skating.

“It was pretty quiet until then and after it settles down, you go back to normal life,” he said. “It was nice to get it done at a point in summer where there was still some time to clear your mind after that and prepare for the season as usual.”

The workload Holtby received in 2014-15, however, suggested a decidedly abnormal season for the 25-year-old. He twice broke the franchise record for consecutive appearances, maintaining throughout that, given the opportunity, he would play all 82 games if the Capitals allowed. That mindset hadn’t changed by Wednesday, when Holtby and his bosses hadn’t yet talked about his workload for the upcoming year.

“And I don’t expect there to be,” Holtby said. “We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that they know when they ask me to play a game I’m going to play it and play it as hard as I can. The amount or whatnot depends a lot on where we’re at with a team, where we’re at physically, all of us. A lot goes on during the season. You just focus on Game 1 and move onto Game 2.”

With Philipp Grubauer most likely backing up Holtby, and veterans Justin Peters and Dan Ellis bound for Hershey, sniffing the 73-game mark again seems unlikely. But Holtby’s mindset hadn’t much changed by Wednesday, when Korn directed him through exhausting medicine ball drills before an hour or so of scrimmaging. As impossible a task as it would be, playing all 82 games – or whatever gaudy number ultimately gets reached — was still on his mind.

“I’d like to,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a benefit to the team at all. That’s a question you don’t really know. As many games as I play, I want to play them all as well as I can. That’s a determining factor in how many I play. If you keep playing consistent, there’s a reason to play more.”