A popular vacation destination, Kelowna, B.C., is on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake with a waterfront downtown that’s surrounded by parks, mountains and vineyards. It was where Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby and new goaltending coach Scott Murray took a summer bonding trip of sorts, three days to get to know each other better in one of the most idyllic cities in Canada.
“It was good to get a plan in place for what we wanted to accomplish this year, and then also get something to work on . . . and kind of have one aspect that we’re going to work on through the year,” Holtby said.
That one aspect would be the focus of Murray’s goaltending teaching, a style called “head trajectory” that was developed by British Columbia-based Lyle Mast, who consults with several goalies and coaches in the NHL. The simplest way to describe head trajectory is tracking a puck with the head rather than just with the eyes. While in Kelowna, Holtby and Murray met with Mast to learn more about head trajectory and, as Holtby put it, “to see if there was any tools we could add.”
Murray is the fifth goaltending coach Holtby has had in his seven-year tenure with the Capitals, and each has his own philosophies about the position. The transition from Mitch Korn to Murray was relatively seamless; Murray had started working with Washington’s goalies last season when he was still the assistant goaltending coach and primarily responsible for the organization’s minor league netminders.
But through those changes, Holtby has had to balance keeping an open mind to new ideas and concepts while sticking to a foundation that has made him a Vezina Trophy winner asone of the league’s best and most consistent goaltenders the past three years.
“You pick and choose what works for you,” Holtby said. “Obviously, everyone at this level has something that makes them successful that they bring to the table. A goaltending coach is like a teacher, and if you’re going to broaden your horizons and broaden your game as much as you can, you want to get different teachers. You want to go to different classes and that kind of thing, learn everything about the position. And then you take all of that information and find what works for you. If you have one ideology in mind, you’re not going to adapt to the changes in the game. Teams figure you out and your tendencies, so you’ve got to keep evolving.”
Holtby and Korn took a similar trip together the summer before they first started their partnership in the 2014-15 season. That excursion featured some vision training with an optometrist in Minneapolis, and it was Korn, now the Capitals’ director of goaltending, who suggested Holtby and Murray go to Kelowna together to start building their relationship and also explore the head-trajectory concept with Mast.
“Obviously, when you enter a partnership, the biggest thing is trust and believing in each other as people, so I think it was really important,” Murray said. “As much as I’ve gotten a chance to talk to him and know him a little bit, to get to know him really well as a person in a scenario where we had no choice but to get to know each other and hang out, it was awesome.”
It also served as the starting point for adding some elements of head trajectory to Holtby’s game. Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has worked with Mast for the past three summers, offered a demonstration of the technique in a hallway of Capital One Arena when the Wild was in town earlier this month. The key goal is increased efficiency.
“If you think about going from your right to your left and the pass comes, you think being fast is moving and then pushing over,” Dubnyk said. That could require four separate actions to accomplish. But, Dubnyk explained, if he moves his head while tracking the puck, “you just stay there and then, as the puck crosses, if you’re watching it and then you just watch it as it gets there, you just push and you’re eliminating an extra motion.”
Basically, it’s leading with the head and having the body follow. Holes close more easily because the upper body is always behind the puck and facing the puck, which allows the lower body to come in behind the puck better.
“Imagine if the eyes were stuck in the middle of your sockets,” Dubnyk said, “and the only way you’d be able to follow or watch things around would be how you’d look.”
Said Holtby: “It’s mainly just to give yourself a little more time to react. Some of it makes sense.”
That one motion saved could be the split second that differentiates a goal and a save. With a less experienced blueline in front of him this season, Holtby is seeing roughly 4.75 more shots per game compared with last year; this is the first time he has been peppered with more than 30 shots per game since Barry Trotz became coach. But in the company of goalies who have played at least 800 minutes this season, Holtby is fifth in even-strength save percentage (.925) and high-danger save percentage (.842), maintaining his top form even as his teammates have occasionally struggled in front of him.
If a headfirst approach can give Holtby even the slightest edge, he’s open to it.
“He’s open because he knows how to bring new techniques into his game and new information into his head without being consumed by it,” Murray said. “Him learning and trying new concepts is not something that bothers him. It helps him because of the way he internalizes it and manages that information and those techniques and brings it into that whole package that he stays true to.”
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