These Playoffs Are Braden Holtby’s Time to Shine

There’s no point in trying to argue it: Braden Holtby did not have a very good 2019-20 season. I don’t think he would argue it because we have seen how great he can really be. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 for being the league’s best goalie and, something I just learned, he finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, which is presented annually to the league’s most valuable player. Plus, we all know how good he was in the 2018 playoffs.

Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals kisses the Stanley Cup
Braden Holtby (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

However, for whatever reason, Holtby’s game has regressed since then. Perhaps the defense in front of him has gotten worse. This is possible, considering the year he won the Vezina Trophy, he was on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team. Maybe he just had a down year. This is also possible because almost every player in the league has had a season where they put up uncharacteristic numbers. Holtby’s numbers this year were criminally low by his standards.

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In 48 games, he had a .897 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.11 goals against average (GAA). These are both career lows for the Canadian-born netminder. This is why Holtby began to lose starts to Washington’s 2015 first-round pick, Ilya Samsonov. In Samsonov’s first season in the NHL since coming over from Russia, he went 16-6-2 with a 9.13 SV% and a 2.55 GAA.

This added pressure to Holtby because, in what must have felt like deja vu, it seemed as though he was losing his job to his backup goalie. For those unaware of what I mean, this happened in 2017-18 when Philipp Grubauer stole Holtby’s job and secured the starting position for the playoffs. Still, head coach, Todd Reirden, assured that the crease was Holtby’s to lose for the upcoming postseason.

In the Spotlight

As teams are preparing and participating in their training camps, everyone is getting back on the ice and ready for what lies ahead. Everyone except Ilya Samsonov. It was reported today that Samsonov has a lower-body injury and will not travel to Toronto with the Capitals. This means that his season is done, and he will not be Holtby’s backup for the playoffs.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Washington will travel to Toronto with Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek; Both of these goalies played for the Hershey Bears this past season. What this means is that the guy who will potentially steal Holtby’s job in the playoffs (and will almost guarantee take it next season) will not be with the team. All of the spotlights are now shining on Holtby.

With Samsonov out, Holtby has the chance to step up and show why he is the starting goalie for the Capitals. He did it in the 2018 playoffs when Grubauer started, but after two losses in Round 1, Holtby eventually took over. He now doesn’t have the pressure of Samsonov breathing down his neck if he has one bad game. Because of this injury, Holtby’s leash has been extended by a hefty length because the Capitals should not, and hopefully will not rely on two AHL goaltenders (even though Copley was the backup last season).

What This Means for Holtby

It is all about what Holtby does with this extended leash. If he enters the postseason and plays like he did in the regular season, it wouldn’t even make sense for Washington to try and re-sign him this offseason because he will ask for too much money and will have not proven to be worth it. But, if he steps in and is able to dominate the crease like he has proven himself capable of doing, well then there is a lot more incentive for general manager Brian MacLellan to at least try and get a deal done with the veteran puck-stopper.

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The ball is in Holtby’s court now. An injury to a teammate is never a good thing, but I am not sure it could’ve come at a better time if you are Holtby. He may have diminished his value this past season but a solid playoff could change that. It also is most likely his last chance at a playoff run with this group of guys, and I think that means something to him.

Braden Holtby Washington Capitals
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With all of the spotlights on him, will he shine, or simply dim out? That’s up to Braden Holtby.