In Braden Holtby’s world, perfect scores do not always equal perfect goaltending.
By the time Holtby spoke to the media moments after his team’s 5-0 win over the Florida Panthers Saturday, the goaltender had already analyzed what he needed to work on. He felt it was his worst game all season playing the puck—even though he had a highlight-reel up-ice pass that earned him an assist on a power play goal.
“A couple plays in the first, especially I made a mistake and then went for icing, and then a couple rims that just got by me that I know I can have,” Holtby said, when asked to elaborate on his self-criticism. “Just the little things that they don’t go unnoticed to us and we’ll make sure we improve on.”
There’s not a better example of Holtby’s calling card as a goaltender–a player who never stops learning. Recall that he’d just completed a 27-shot shutout, only his second win of the season, which meant he had twice as many losses as victories. It was a moment of celebration for his team, and for himself, after a start to the season that had him dragging around a .857 save percentage. He made huge stops, and he made them look easy.
One would excuse a moment of indulgence. Holtby took time to compliment his teammates’ role in the win, but there was little basking in the glow of a shutout for himself.
“That’s one thing you learn playing more and more—it’s the results on the scoreboard with goals and whatnot aren’t what you look at to get better,” he said when asked if he had focused more on the mistakes or the shutout when he finished the game. “It’s the little things like that that we can use to keep improving.”
Journalist Alex Wilkinson once wrote in a profile of Mike Richter, two years before he won the Stanley Cup, “He has a tireless desire to better his game. John Davidson, the Rangers’ television announcer and former goalie, says that what distinguishes Richter from the approximately forty-five other goaltenders Davidson observes each season in the National Hockey League is the intensity of his resolve to make himself more proficient.”
While the driving force behind Richter’s work ethic may or may not be that of Holtby’s, the two, separated by almost two decades of goaltending, appear reflections of each other in their desire for improvement. In Holtby, one sees an insatiable hunger for perfection coupled with talent—a union everyone looks for in a professional athlete.
Holtby is the quintessential student of the game. He’ll read different things, his favorite material being biographies (though he says you can take perspective from anything). During the playoffs last year, which he finished with a .935 save percentage, he was reading an autobiography on Derek Jeter.
“It probably helped a lot more than I think,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer that I can learn more from other people, especially people that I look up to, and obviously Jeter’s one of them, because he’s a winner.”
Of course, all the tributes to Holtby’s approach don’t mask his start to this season, which has been worse than many in the league, including his counterpart in Washington, Michal Neuvirth—and far below either Capitals goalie’s capability. It feels almost odd to be writing about how a goalie feels mental strength and consistency are where he’s put in a lion’s share of work since his first start in the NHL, when his numbers have experienced such a sharp drop.
But, looking back over the progression of his game since that first NHL start back in November 2010, mental progression and what he can do over and over to feel he played at the top of his game every day are what Holtby mentions when asked what’s changed since his first start for the Capitals. His “Holtbyisms” on which he relied so much during his time in the AHL and NHL don’t seem to be as prominent this season, though he hasn’t consciously noticed a difference.
“I think they’re gonna go away sooner or later, ‘cause I just started doing them to feel comfortable,” Holtby said. “I feel like the more prepared I am, the more into it mentally, the less I do those type things, to try and keep that mental ability up—that’s usually where they came from, is when I’m not feeling very good, I do the things that I’m comfortable with. … To tell you the truth, I don’ t even notice when I do them or when I don’t.”
There’s also been the off-ice adjustment, one that received ample attention during last year’s playoff run, when Holtby’s son was born, of which Holtby says there’s been “nothing but great things” since.
“I don’t even notice the sleep anymore. I’m up early. Now I feel like one of the old guys—talking to the older guys in the morning [instead of showing up later],” he said when asked about adjustments to the sleep schedule and training since [he defined the older guys who show up in the morning as “basically, the guys who have kids”]. “Luckily, Brandi’s been great. … During the summer, I was able to train. And she understands it’s like a job, but it really, when it comes to training and stuff, you get used to it. It’s just like anything in life, you adapt to it.”
He perhaps unconsciously showed a softer side to his game on the ice when he added a bit later, “It is nice knowing in the home games, that he’s up there watching, though. That’s for sure.”
And, though Holtby stressed that he still wants to be the same person and player, fatherhood may help finesse a much-needed ability to put what happens on the rink in perspective. In a way, it’s a culmination of an important lesson Holtby’s been learning since his first year in Hershey: a player cannot live his life solely at the rink.
“I mean, that’s something I’ve slowly learned throughout my professional career,” Holtby said. “The older you get, the more you realize you have to separate everything.”
There will likely be many more learning curves for the 23-year-old goaltender after the Capitals’ slow start to the season. But there is good news for the team’s fans in all of this: a guy this committed to improving while winning will likely not lose for long.