Braden Holtby is having a fine season. But just how fine might surprise you. Look at his body of work during the 2014-15 season and you’ll see a surprisingly strong case to consider Holtby among the NHL’s top MVP candidates.
Braden Holtby, who made 25 saves in his 2-1 victory against the Senators on Thursday, has posted a 3-0-1 record over his last four starts and allowed only two goals while facing a total of 110 shots on goal in those four games. Holtby is the first Capitals goaltender to allow no more than two goals over a four-start span in one season since Jim Carey did so in March/April 1996.
“He has made some adjustments to his positioning and has gotten his body involved in more saves,” explains Mitch Korn, the Capitals’ goaltending coach. “He has way more body control with his arms and legs working together.”
To be fair, the defense in Washington is much improved. Last year they allowed 33.5 shots per game, which has fallen to 28.8 per game this season. Even Alex Ovechkin’s much maligned plus/minus has improved from a woeful minus-35 in 2013-14 to a plus-13 through 52 games this season.
Korn agrees, but doesn’t discount the impact Holtby can have given the improvement in front of him.
“I have said to Braden: ‘The way this team plays now, gives you a chance to be good. The way you play will give you a chance to be great.’”
And Holtby has been playing great, enough that he is in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s best goaltender. He has six shutouts in 35 starts this season, a pace, if continued, that would place him in the top-10 all time in shutouts by a player’s age-25 season. Only Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has more (seven) shutouts this year. But even when Holtby isn’t pitching a shutout, he is doing everything he can to keep the Capitals in games.
“He had some really good numbers in the past, but I think there is a level of consistency, a level of comfort, that was not necessarily there before. It is a more solid way of playing,” Korn said.
More than two-thirds of his starts (65.7 percent) have been “quality,” meaning he has a save percentage above the league average in a game. Carey Price, who leads ESPN’s Vezina Trophy tracker, has just a 60 percent quality start percentage. Morever, he’s seldom been bad. In just four of his starts has he saved less than 85 percent of the shots he faced.
Then consider this: It is harder for Holtby to earn a win than some of the other netminders dubbed front-runners for the Vezina. For example, when Holtby is in net, the Capitals score 2.4 even-strength goals per 60 minutes while allowing 27.1 shots against per 60. That gives him an even-strength win threshold (shots-against minus goals-for divided by shots against) of .911. That figure represents the save percentage with which the Caps would have an equal number of even-strength goals-for and against over the course of the season. The Predators, on the other hand, have given Pekka Rinne (another Vezina favorite) a win threshold of .897, making it significantly easier for him to earn a win.
And after you adjust their save percentages for situations faced, there is not much separation. In other words, the same performance gets Rinne better results than Holtby in terms of wins and losses.
But don’t stop with just the goalie hardware. Holtby also deserves consideration for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s MVP.
It is rare for a goalie to win the Hart — it’s only happened three times since 1997 — but Holtby deserves to be in the discussion.
“One of the reasons Hasek was Hasek is the team didn’t always give him a chance to be good and he did it anyway. That’s what made him so special,” said Korn, who worked with Hasek for seven seasons in Buffalo and one of two people the Hall of Fame goalie thanked after the announcement of his induction.
Holtby has faced 35 or more shots six times this season, and has a 4-0-2 record in those games. Plus, he has saved 85.2 percent of shots from the slot, the most dangerous scoring area on the ice, trailing only the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak (minimum 200 shots faced from the slot).
And finally, according to goalie point shares, an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player due to his play in goal, only Carey Price has been more valuable to his club.
Add it all together and Holtby deserves to be a finalist as the best goaltender in the NHL and in the conversation for the league’s most valuable player. The Capitals would clearly not be in playoff contention without him.