As long as the NHL doesn’t realign their divisions and conferences before the upcoming 2020-21 season, we’re about to see if the Vancouver Canucks recent acquisition, Braden Holtby, can reclaim his dominance of the past en route to becoming the best goalie in the NHL’s Pacific Division.
Within the division is one of last season’s Vezina Trophy considerations, Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes – for reference, the Vezina Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL’s goaltender who is “adjudged to be the best at this position”. This award is something that Holtby was awarded in 2015-16 when he and his former club, the Washington Capitals, combined to achieve an astounding record of 48-9.
Also in the division is Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights, the Calgary Flames recently signed former Canuck Jacob Markstrom, and the division has solid veteran stalwarts Jonathan Quick on the Los Angles Kings and John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks, and that’s not all, Holtby will also be competing against is on his own teammate, Thatcher Demko, who appears to have the skills to become a franchise starter himself.
Then the remaining two teams in this division have exceptional goalies in Devan Dubnyk on the San Jose Sharks with Martin Jones, who can steal a game here and there and Edmonton has the firey veteran, Mike Smith.
With all these impressive opposing men in the crease (and on the team), how can we prospect Holtby’s potential performance in the Pacific? By looking at a previous example against a very talented well-balanced team, the Boston Bruins.
I’m going to look at an old rivalry between the Canucks and the Bruins to show you if the Holtbeast could beat the Bear, he might be able to slay the Pacific teams too.
Acquiring the Bruin Beater
The reason for opening old wounds from 2011 is that the Canucks addition of a former Vezina Trophy winner and 2018 Stanley Cup champion, Holtby allows them to potentially turn the tide against their division rivals.
In his career with the Capitals, Holtby possessed an outstanding record against the Bruins of 18-4, which includes 12 straight wins and during the 2014-15 season, not only was he undefeated in three games, but he also shut out the Bruins in all of them.
When Washington extended its mastery over Boston to 14 straight victories, the team had Holtby to thank for many of them. (from ’Braden Holtby, Capitals continue their mastery of the Bruins’, Washington Post, 01/10/2019). At the time, the Capitals were red hot and enjoying a three-game winning streak that extended their four-point lead in the Metropolitan Division. This led former Capitals head coach Todd Reirden to praise Braden’s significant role in their streak while commending the impact he’s had against the Bruins. “He has been definitely a difference-maker,” said Reirden.
During this display of dominance, it encouraged an interviewer to ask Holtby if he was an owner of the Bruins. His response was stone-faced and respectful. He shook his head and let out half a chuckle before declining to stake any claim to actually owning the Boston organization. He added that they (Capitals) played pretty good hockey against them (Bruins), while admitting that although his team has had success against them, they’ve always been good games.
“Just one of those things that seems to just happen, but they’re a fun team to play against, they work hard, they battle especially in the tough areas. That might be why we’re so engaged in the game when we play them, because they play a hard style of hockey every game.”
Sustaining Dominance Against a Talented Team
Last season, Holtby and the Capitals went 3-1 in their series against the conference rival Bruins. In the latter two of this series, Holtby was scored on five times. Starting with his second-last game against the Bruins for the Caps, on December 23rd, 2019, Holtby allowed four goals and was chased in the 1st period. Luckily for Holtby’s confidence, and for the Canucks, Holtby ended his Capitals vs. Bruins dominance with a win. In what was Holtby’s final game in red against the yellow and black, he’d rebound and backstop the Caps to a 2-1 win over the Bruins.
By being reliable when the team needed him provides optimism that he can do the same in the Pacific Division when the Canucks desire that reliability to pair with a young developing player at the same position.
If Clark can bring out the Holtbeast with the newest goaltender – who gets added rest while splitting starts with the young Demko – Clark and Holtby could give the Canucks an advantage over the division. Through this, I think that we can prospect that Holtby will perform better than last season and because of this, it’s not hard to imagine that the change of scenery and previous dominance over a team that has been a perennial Cup contender could prove Holtby worthy of being successful in this division.
I’d also like to mention one more thing… if the Canucks are restricted to an all Canadian division, Holtby, who signed a two-year, $8.6 million contract with the Canucks in October, will still have an opportunity at being the best goalie in the all Canadian division, although Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens may have something to say about that, it would be exciting to see how Holtby performs across Canada.
Now if Holtby is uber-successful and dominates the all Canadian division, he may be plucked to play for an opposing team in the Pacific Division, the Seattle Kraken. When the NHL Expansion Draft happens in June 2021, the Canucks will only be able to protect one goaltender from the Kraken’s selection and there’s a good chance they choose youth and protect Demko, regardless of Holtby’s performance this season – leaving the Kraken to salivate over obtaining the Holtbeast.
If that does happen, we won’t see Holtby perform in the Pacific until he’s playing against the Canucks. He’d be 32, and honestly, I still think he would have a chance at being dominant in this division, but he’d still have to battle it out with Demko for the number one spot as the best goalie in the Pacific in what will assuredly propel the Canucks vs. Kraken rivalry towards an exciting start.
As it is now, Holtby joins the Canucks with 10 years of experience playing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who has been compared to the Canucks young star Elias Pettersson. (from ‘NHL Draft: Canucks take Elias Pettersson with fifth overall pick, but will need to be patient,’ The Province, 06/24/2017).
In that decade of dominance, there were three consecutive seasons over 40 wins, plenty of hardware and clutch performances that earned Holtby the trust of management against their opponents. If he can come close to his former self, he will give the Canucks an advantage in net anytime they lace up against a Pacific Division foe – and that goes for the Bruins too.