In Defense of Braden Holtby

The Braden Holtby bashing has already begun, thanks to Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres where Holtby was pulled after allowing 3 goals on 18 shots.

That’s bad, but people are also blowing it out of proportion:  using Holtby’s performance Tuesday as vindication that it was the wrong decision to start him, that  he doesn’t belong playing at the NHL level, and that the blame for Tuesday’s loss falls squarely on his shoulders.

In light of seemingly insurmountable odds (like an .833 save percentage in Tuesday’s game), these facts might make you think differently:

1. Guess who gave up 3 goals to Buffalo back in December (when the Caps played them)and had to be pulled? Michal Neuvirth. And it only took him 11 minutes. Holtby at least made it into the second period.

2. Guess who gave up 5 goals to Buffalo in November (under Bruce Boudreau)? Tomas Vokoun. In the interest of full disclosure, Vokoun also helped the Capitals beat the Sabres 3-1 later on in the season, but since Vokoun was injured, he wasn’t an option for Tuesday’s game. And, all told, he’s still this year given up more goals to Buffalo than Holtby.

3. Holtby just came off a shutout; a shootout loss where he held the third-best team in the league in goals per game to 1–I repeat–1 goal in regulation and overtime; and a 5-3 victory in Hockeytown (ironically, Detroit averages the fourth best in goals per game) . Neuvirth, meanwhile, is coming off a blown lead to Winnipeg (though he faced a lot of shots), and a 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks.

4. Both Neuvirth and Vokoun have played poorly enough to get pulled before, so it’s not like Braden’s distinction in that category Tuesday somehow proved he doesn’t deserve to be up here playing in the NHL. In fact, the Capitals haven’t been satisfied enough over the past few seasons to keep any goalie consistently in the starting role, so in that case, Holtby fits right in.

So what happened with Holtby and Buffalo isn’t actually anything out of the ordinary for any of the Capitals’ goaltenders this season, for those who care to look. [This isn’t meant to be a slight to Michal Neuvirth or to Tomas Vokoun, but I think comparison in this particular situation will help get a more accurate view.]

Obviously, Holtby’s far from  faultless. For example, his rebound control Tuesday was costly.

But he also had little support from his defensive core.  The Capitals gave up at least two odd-man rushes that led to goals (one on Holtby’s third goal, and one on Neuvirth’s second), and that’s not including the shorthanded goal the Sabres scored.

On Holtby’s other two goals, he stopped the initial shot but coughed up the rebound. Blame there is debatable, but Brooks Laich did have this to say after the game:

“Holts makes the first save, we’re responsible to clear the puck after that,” Laich said.

And, bottom line, while Michal Neuvirth’s entrance provided a bit of a jump, the Capitals still finished with a greater goal differential than when Holtby left the game.  In fact, Brooks Laich said afterwards that he was still very confident at 3-1, and even a comeback at 4-1 would have been possible with a goal early in the third. So, in other words, the two goals Neuvirth let in actually did matter–it wasn’t like the Capitals were so deflated by Holtby’s goals that they couldn’t rebound.

People are also screaming about Holtby’s terrible pass to Schultz in the first period. If you actually went back and looked at the play, you’d get a better handle on why that pass was so awkward: you can see on the video that before Holtby’s less-than-perfect pass to Jeff Schultz, he’s actually facing the other way and looks like he wants to pass to the Capitals’ defenseman on that side, which happens to be John Carlson. But guess what? The Buffalo Sabres’ Cody McCormick hustled and caught up with Carlson, cutting off the shooting lane. You can see Holtby notices McCormick coming and has to adjust at the last moment, which means giving an awkward pass to Schultz that’s intercepted by the Sabres, gets passed to McCormick, who then shoots and beats a scrambling Holtby.

Here, playing aggressive works for McCormick and not for Holtby. McCormick’s hustle left Holtby little choice but to pass to Schultz from an awkward angle. Wrong decision to play the puck behind the net? Obviously in this case. But Caps fans have also seen Tomas Vokoun get risky enough this season to make a daredevil squint (observation #1:  that’s not the Caps’ crease! but that is a defender in the picture).

Bottom line: this was a team loss, to which Holtby contributed. Neuvirth may have inherited it, but an .846 save percentage isn’t going to do much to make the case that he was the solution. The Capitals have three talented, NHL-caliber goalies.  At one point or another in the season, Buffalo’s made all three–and the team playing in front of them–look like they belong in the AHL. It was not like the Caps played stellar and were undermined by Holtby letting in soft goals.

To end on a happy note, at least one person was encouraging of Holtby Tuesday night: Alexander Semin.

One observant viewer (@ryancroller) noted on Twitter to beat writer Mike Vogel that, after scoring the Capitals’ only goal of the night, Alex Semin eventually skated back to the bench, “tapped Holtby on shoulder, and went to the faceoff circle.”

Good Sasha.

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13 Responses to In Defense of Braden Holtby

  1. HBH WC says:

    Thanks for blogging Liz. I haven’t seen Pucks ‘N Books here in a long time.
    Addressing Holtby; Dale Hunter is correct, Holtby is high risk, high reward. The fans in Hershey know this all too well. I’ve seen him mishandle the puck behind the net that led to an opposition goal numerous times this year. Also, compare Danny Sabourin stats to Holtby’s (if you want to compare) and you’ll see that as a Bear, Holtby is 20-15-2 @ a .906 save% and Sabourin is 17-9-4 @ a .910 save %.
    In the Bears cup years, there was a reason he played behind Neuvy, he wasn’t as good. (Again from personal observation) I’m not busting on Holtby either, just as you are not busting on Neuvy and Voukon, just stating facts.

  2. Will2 says:

    I’ve watched Holby all season long in Hershey. He has not been consistant. More times than not he has left in 3 or more goals. He has not learned from his puck handling mistakes behind the net and there have been alot. Yes, he had a shutout against Minnesota. But where is Minnesota in the NHL standings, bottom 5. When you think that this game could end up being the one that puts the team in the Playoffs or not of the two goalies I would have put Nuvey in. As for Vokoun, just another bad signing. One of many that this organization has done in the past couple of years.

  3. tracy says:

    there is no way that “this game” puts the team in the playoffs, or not. They have had Many Games this year to get themselves into the playoffs, and as painful as it is to admit, they haven’t been playing playoff hockey. I have got my fingers crossed for the rest of the season, that they will squeak in and play the game with a fighting spirit. They are going to have to play 60 minutes a game, firing on all 8 cylinders, though. So, we’ll see…

  4. First off, thanks HBHWC and Will2 for commenting. I appreciate your analysis.

    I think, honestly, everyone is having a somewhat short memory when it comes to both Braden and Neuvy. Braden himself I think would admit his play has been below his average this season. It happens (I seem to remember a goalie controversy in Boston not long ago, and then Thomas ended up winning the MVP). But I think people are forgetting that, in the Capitals’ actual final four games of the playoff season last year (so yes, literally your season on the line), Neuvirth was between the pipes for all four losses. And this was after he’d helped them win the Rangers’ series. I just feel like people are automatically defaulting to, “Neuvirth in net will help us win big games,” which just simply isn’t always the case.
    Second, I would suggest that I’ve seen improvement in Braden’s puck handling when he’s been called up to D.C. this year. He actually played it fairly cautious (compared to what I typically see of him) for most of this stretch of games.

    Third, I”d submit that the reason Holtby was playing behind Neuvy at Hershey for most of that time was that Hershey understood this principle known as a number one goalie. Neuvy had the job, and until he really messed it up, they weren’t going to promote Braden over him. But the Caps don’t play that way, apparently.

    Finally, does anyone remember Neuvirth’s first four NHL games (though some of them were in relief of Theodore during the game)? He started out with an amazing .967 save percentage. Then it went .875, .875, .833 (and he played 59 minutes in that one).

    I think the overall thing is that goalies need to be playing fairly consistently to get into a rhythm. They are going to have really bad and off nights (just like pitchers), and you can’t take one bad showing among a host of above average ones in a stretch and just automatically assume they don’t belong there.

  5. Before we use this year in Hershey as the benchmark of Braden’s career, let’s remember he thought he was going to be a part of this team before they signed Vokoun. Say what you will, but that is hard for any player to rebound from mentally.

    I bet many of us wouldn’t but forward the best effort for a little whole at our jobs if we thought we were in line for a promotion and someone else swooped in and took it from us. It is human to be disappointed and distracted when that kind of thing happens.

    Holtby was by far one of the team’s best goalies last year down the stretch even earning an NHL Star of the Week and he has been great so far during this call up. Yes he had poor rebound control yesterday and needed to be pulled but he didn’t have a lot of help in front of him and made a few spectacular saves as well.

    Let’s judge him by his body of work instead of one game or one year.

  6. Will2 says:


    To expand on my comments on Holby. Last season before he was called up to Washington from Hershey he was a terrific goalie. After he was sent down he was no longer the same goalie and was letting in more and more goals. Many in Hershey commented on how bad he was performing after his stint in DC. Yeah, maybe he was unhappy about being sent down but its part of the game and it tests the character and mental stature of a person who plays the game. At the beginning of this season he was still performing poorly. Someone who sees him perform more than the DC crowd would have a better take on how good he has been. He is not ready to be the goalie that the team turns to in signicant games, i.e., playoffs and Hunter putting him in was a big mistake but then Hunter was the wrong choice to take on this team after Bruce anyways.

  7. Will we can definitely agree about the hiring of Huntee being a mistake.

    I would also agree you would have a better perspective on the guy, that said I have watched everyone of his NHL games and talked to him numerous times and everything I’ve seen and heard tells me he is ready, sure there are going to be some bumps in the road, but he will learn quickly.

  8. HBH WC says:

    I don’t quite understand your statement about the year Holtby and Neuvy were the goaltending tandem for the Bears. It appears to me that you’ve been misinformed. Neuvy actually played less regular season games than Holtby that season. (Surprised?) That year Neuvy had to deal with the injury bug. Holtby played 37 games, Neuvy played 22, and Jason Bacashihua played 22 games. So your statement about Neuvy having the job until he messed up doesn’t hold true statistically. I remember when Neuvy was hurt we were always hoping that “Cash” would play because as Bears fans we felt that the Bears had a better chance of winning with “Cash” in the net. I know, I was there.
    During the playoffs, Neuvy healed. His record in those playoffs was 14-4 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.04 GAA. Holtby was 2-1 with a 3.60 GAA and an .860 save percentage. So from those stats I would surmise Neuvy played ahead of Holtby because he was simply better. Also remember that Neuvy won two Calder Cups in two years in Hershey. The first season, he shared goaltending responsibilities with Varley but played every game in the playoffs and went 16-6.
    Again Liz, just facts here. (except for the feeling the Bears fans had about “Cash”, that’s just an opinion.)
    Oh.. one other opinion if I may, Neuvy had almost no chance on either one of those goals Tuesday night. One goal came on a two on one and the second came on a three on two that was for all intents and purposes a three on one.
    Thanks for listening.

  9. sonja says:

    I always think that blaming the goalie for a loss is like picking the low-hanging fruit. Sure … it’s there for the picking, but is that all there really is to pick? It’s pretty easy to blame the goalie … but interestingly enough, they never get the glory for a win (except for a shoot-out). Holtby is ready for the NHL; he’s not ready for the kind of pressure being generated before last night’s game. That was killer … on the whole team as it turned out.

    Bottom line … it doesn’t matter how many goals Holtby or Neuvy let in, the offense did not produce at all. One goal? That’s pitiful.

    Goalies can only prevent goals … they don’t score them (exceptional cases aside).

  10. Elisabeth Meinecke says:

    Sorry, my answer must not have been written clearly(comes with being up the night before writing game stories 🙂 I was aware that Holtby was playing because Neuvy was injured; that was actually my point– that Hershey seems to stick with a number one goalie distinction, and that when Neuvy came back, he was still given the benefit of the doubt despite Braden’s strong play (and obviously, Neuvy came through). So, basically Braden could play out of his mind amazing hockey, but he was younger, drafted later, and simply wasnt going to win the starting job at that point. He had to pay his dues. I didnt mean to imply Neuvy messed up and that is why Braden played; I knew he was injured.
    But now, with the Caps, it is a different story, and I dont really think saying Braden backed up Neuvy in Hershey has as much bearing on the situation. Bottom line, it is who is going to have most success on the NHL level. And the Caps dont seem to have the same confidence in Neuvy as the Bears did. Neuvy cant clinch tbe starting job here; though I think some of that is institutional.
    About those odd man rushes and Neuvy’s goals–thatis exactly my point that people are willing to sit there and make excuses for Neuvy’s goals allowed, and everyone seems to forget that the exact same D played in front of Holtby and was similarly incompetent on one or two of those goals. And while I understand that sometimes goalies don’t have a chance, the buck (or puck, actually) stops there, and no one got the job done Sunday.

  11. Elisabeth Meinecke says:

    Also, I apologize for any grammatical errors in that last comment–typing on this ipad is like trying to stop a Stamkos shot.

  12. HBH WC says:

    I totally agree with you. A good hockey coach will tell his players, before you start blaming the goalie, just look at the mistakes that were made by the team that led to the goal. That is where you have to tighten up.
    In this instance, I sound like a broken record but it is increasingly apparent to me. This team started going downhill after Halak stole the playoff series between the Caps and the Habs. In my estimation, management panicked and decided that their style of play was not conducive to winning playoff games so they went a total 180 and tried to make the team play a more defensive style. The problem being that the personnel was not really inclined to play that style. This is the same style that Hanlon had them play and we all know what Hanlon’s record was. This is the style that Hunter has them playing and his record isn’t all that stellar either.
    I’ve also said this before; The Pens lost to that same goalie/team just as the Caps did and for the same reason. Halak was playing out of his mind! The Pens did not change their style of play or fire their coach. You can’t deny they are one of the best teams (maybe the best) heading in to the playoffs this year. The Caps may not even make the playoffs and if they do, does anyone think they’ll get very far?

  13. HBH WC says:

    I didn’t know grammatical correctness was part of the criteria. Uh…….I just didn’t know;~)

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