Back in September, Braden Holtby was like the teenager who’d outgrown the kids’ table at Thanksgiving — he’d advanced far enough as a pro to be left off the Capitals’ rookie camp roster in favor of the more prestigious training camp, but he hadn’t yet graduated to a regular NHL role.
Our own pucksandbooks has for a couple of years now touted Holtby as the best puckhandling goaltender he’d seen come through the Capitals’ organization. If you watched last night’s 3-2 overtime loss in Buffalo, you saw a little of Holtby’s flair for head-manning the puck up the ice with accuracy. Recall Holtby’s nifty puck redirect to Alexander Semin during his first NHL start last Sunday; the kid is special with his stick.
For Holtby, the skill serves a dual purpose: putting his team in a position to win and helping the players stay healthy.
“My mentality . . . is that I want to help my teammates out as much as I can and help the team out as much as I can to win,” Holtby said. “If you can play the puck effectively, it helps your d-men out, and it helps [prevent] injuries, especially ’cause they’re not getting hit in the corner as much.”
Holtby also explained that he’d played as a forward in youth hockey — as well as a goaltender — till he was about 13 or 14.
“I think it was something my dad always wanted to pushed me toward, being a forward, because it’d be a little cheaper on him,” Holtby chuckled.
But Holtby enjoyed the puckwork, and the skillset, he said, was something that distinguished his game from other netminders. His emphasis on puckhandling came from emulating goalies who were tearing up the NHL while he was growing up– goalies like the New Jersey Devils’ Martin Brodeur.
In fact, any lengthy conversation with Holtby about goaltending style is likely to bring up a Brodeur reference, which made us at OFB curious: had Holtby ever indulged in a Brodeur-esque fist pummeling of his opponents?
It turns out he had, actually, gotten into a fight as a goalie. In fact, he called it one of the funniest moments in his career.
Holtby said the fight came in juniors against his team’s biggest rival and started with a scrum behind the net late in the game.
“I looked down and the other goalie was shaking his gloves at me,” Holtby said, adding that he actually knew the other goalie fairly well and they’d never had a problem with each other. “We met out at center — the ref tried to stop the other guy, and he did a spin around him [the ref] into him . . like a figure skater.”
Sadly, any video of the said scrum hasn’t made it to YouTube . . . yet. Holtby said they threw a few punches, but no one really hit anything.
“If you watched it, we both had huge smiles on our faces,” Holtby said. “You can’t really fight when you’re not mad at the guy.”
It’s also from goalies like Brodeur that Holtby recognizes the potential of the position to be a team leader rather than the more offbeat reputation goalies often are stamped with — a stereotype Holtby feels probably came around more from the ’70s and ’80s, when goalies took hard shots with much less equipment.
“A lot of the best leaders in hockey are goaltenders because they’re going to have to be your best player when it comes down to it,” Holtby said, rattling off names like Brodeur, Ryan Miller, and Roberto Luongo.
Holtby also gave a nod, however, to something that makes the position unique — and in a way isolates him — from the other five guys out on the ice: gametime preparation.
“Forwards and defensemen usually have to get jacked up and ready to go out there and battle, while goalies has to be very calm and very focused throughout, because you have to wait for the play to come to you. You don’t have to go initiate the play,” Holtby said of gametime preparation.
The goalie-to-goalie relationships on the same team can get even more complicated. Holtby talked about the nuances of being always in competition with a teammate yet making sure that guy is supported. It’s a situation OFB feels is heightened in Washington by the fact that no one looking in from the outside really knows for sure who the number one goalie is.
“You’re always in competition with each other, but at the same time you have to find a bond where you’re the best teammates with each other too,” Holtby said. “You’re gonna be there for them even though they know you’re in competition with them. It’s one of the stranger things in sports ‘cause only one guy gets to play.”
Holtby’s turn to be the supported finally came over last weekend, thanks to a Semyon Varlamov injury and a worn out Michal Neuvirth. He played well — winning his NHL debut and his first start. The media around his locker after the debut made Paris Hilton look unpopular.
And while serving and maturing as the starting goalie in Hershey is probably the first order of business for the rest of the season, Holtby’s given Capitals fans a lot to look forward to.