He was scheduled to take the next step; to prove he can handle the workload of a full NHL season with consistency and composure. But thanks to the labor stalemate between owners and players, instead of opening the 2012-13 campaign at Verizon Center on Friday night, Holtby will spend the foreseeable future in the land of rolling farms and chocolate-scented air as anchor of the minor league Hershey Bears.
It wasn’t what Holtby or the Capitals planned, but the young goaltender is determined to make the best of the situation.
“My experience as a professional is you play on the team you’re playing for right now,” Holtby said earlier this month. “You can’t look to the future at all. Stuff changes so quickly. Right now I’m a Hershey Bear and my focus is on winning games and giving our team a chance to win.”
Holtby, who turned 23 on Sept. 16, the first day of the NHL’s second lockout in eight years, had prepared for this possibility. During the offseason he remained at home in Saskatchewan and delayed his plans to find a place to live in Washington. Once the lockout was official, Holtby and his family went to Hershey, home of the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate.
As the NHL lockout drags on with no indication of resolution, Holtby, along with fiancee Brandi Bodnar and 5-month-old son Benjamin, will reside in Hummelstown, Pa., a borough about four miles from Giant Center, the Bears’ arena. Holtby considers himself lucky to have a spot in Hershey, given that many of his peers are passing time with informal practices and little organized competition.
“Everyone wants to make it to the next step and this pushes everyone back a bit,” Holtby said, acknowledging that his presence in Hershey causes a domino effect with goalies throughout the organization, sending others — like AHL-ready Philipp Grubauer — to the East Coast league.
“I was fortunate enough to come down here with the way my contract works,” said Holtby, who is slated to earn $65,000 at the AHL level as opposed to $600,000 in the NHL this season. “It’s a benefit for me just to be playing, so that when things do start up again I can just keep going.”
Holtby’s even-keeled perspective is crucial at this juncture of his career. It wasn’t so long ago that the Saskatchewan native admitted he struggled with maintaining focus at the AHL level because his goals were beyond it.
But over the course of the past year, Holtby went from being pushed out of a steady job in Washington last season by the addition of Tomas Vokoun to capturing the hopes of a fan base as he backstopped 14 Stanley Cup playoff games while handling the stress of becoming a first-time father. It was a season that taught him how quickly and how significantly his trajectory could be changed by outside circumstance.
“He was always a mature kid, even when he first came to us,” Bears Coach Mark French said. “But you can see where, over the past year, there’s even more maturity within his approach, his game, the way he handles himself.
“There’s an air of confidence about him, but Braden’s always had that,” French said. “There’s no arrogance or ego to it at all. He’s got a great attitude coming into this. He feels he can get better every day and he approaches each day with that goal.”
Wherever he plays, Holtby knows he can continue to hone his game and further harness the steely composure that was on display as he recorded a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average while going 7-7 in the playoffs last spring without consecutive losses. Those outings, against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, catapulted him from prospect to a prominent NHL name with weighty expectations.
“It’s always tough as a player to go through such an emotional couple of series in the playoffs and all the attention that was brought upon him,” Capitals associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said. “Not being able to continue that momentum is a little bit of a letdown. But getting through it is part of being mentally tough and consistent.”
The playoffs offered a small, but certainly promising, sample of Holtby’s capabilities, but his true test lies whenever the NHL resumes play. Then he’ll be challenged not only by opponents but by teammate Michal Neuvirth, who wants to claim his place atop the organization’s depth chart as well.
In the AHL, Holtby will face elevated competition thanks to the presence of other displaced NHLers, and he’ll have regular guidance from goaltending coaches Dave Prior and Kolzig. Holtby will also get to familiarize himself with new Capitals Coach Adam Oates, who is serving as co-coach of the Bears during the lockout.
Factor it all together, and Hershey is far from the worst place to spend the lockout.
“There’s no way to complain about it, really,” Holtby said. “I’m here. I’m fortunate to be playing and to be in a competitive atmosphere. The AHL’s not an easy place to play, either. I can do as much learning down here as I can up in the NHL.”