Photo by Amanda Bowen
We’re thrilled to have Catherine Silverman aboard for this guest post. Cat writes for Today’s Slapshot and The Leafs Nation. She knows her goalies and was kind enough to write some words about Braden Holtby, his beard, and what makes him a great goalie. Be sure to give her a follow on Twitter. Take it away, Catherine!
I’ll make a confession: I’m an unabashed Braden Holtby apologist, and I absolutely adore just about everything about him.
He’s got that majestic beard. He flips his hair like he’s Henrik Lundqvist, but somehow also manages to always look like he’s hair-flipping in slow-mo during some sort of theatrical trailer for a surfing movie. He’s delightfully aggressive when skaters try to push him around, and he once refused to let the linesmen help him fish a puck out of his pads (despite the fact that it probably would have sped up the game a bit). Braden Holtby, in my eyes, is really a hero.
Outside of these more lighthearted reasons to appreciate Holtby, though, I’ve got a serious love for the way he plays the game — and if you’re a Capitals fan, you’re in for a serious treat yet again this year.
Maybe people have told you that he’s going to regress. His numbers, his previous seasons, just don’t add up in their eyes; he still has to prove that he can take what was done in the 2014-2015 season and do it all over again.
Let them talk. They’re probably wrong.
I get a lot of comments from fans whenever I do a piece on goaltenders, explaining to me exactly why a goaltender’s save percentage, play in the AHL five years ago, poor season when his NHL club first recalled him, or loss of starts to someone who “isn’t even all that good either” proves that the commenter’s opinion on a goaltender is superior to my commentary. (Forget the fact, of course, that Carey Price once almost lost the starting job in Montreal to Jaroslav Halak.)
I get this mostly when I talk about controversial goaltenders from the 2014-2015 season — Mike Smith and Jonathan Bernier sparked some RAGING debates last year and this summer, wouldn’t you know — but I get a fair amount of criticism for Holtby, as well.
While I was poking around for some fun tidbits on Holtby (who actually didn’t commit to playing goal until much later in his hockey career, something he’s credited plenty of his success to) and I came across an open letter to Caps fans from the Goalie Guild’s Justin Goldman circa 2012. It was published right here, on this beautiful site, and it was everything fans needed to hear at the time.
In a nutshell, he was coaxing Capitals fans to calm the heck down; he promised you had a special goaltender in Holtby, and he was certainly right.
From the start, there’s been a technical excellence about Holtby’s game that you just don’t see in a lot of goaltenders. Ryan Miller twists and turns and flops on his side to make saves, Ben Bishop has an addiction to flying out of his crease and scrambling around like he’s picking up candy from a broken piñata — but Holtby is a technically sharp, precise netminder. That’s nothing particularly new.
What had initially concerned me about Holtby, interestingly enough, was that he really didn’t seem to have an explanation for why he’d make some weird choices in net despite his sharp technique — his poor games couldn’t be chalked up to much other than that they were just ‘Holtby being Holtby.’ He’d balance out the most impressive, structurally sound drop in to butterfly with a wacky rockette-style kick, getting perfectly back into position each time. He was (and, to an extent, still is) jerky and aggressive, but still maintained a love to getting back into position as quickly as possible — and when it worked, it was absolutely amazing to watch.
He’d allow a weird, seemingly soft goal, though, and I’d feel so frustrated; for someone who was ideally so great in net, Holtby lacked the consistency that I wanted to see from his game early on in his AHL (and eventually his NHL) career.
I don’t want to attribute his entire game to Mitch Korn, of course. Korn is an amazing, special gift to the world of goaltending, but even he cannot take a Tanner Glass and make a Sidney Crosby; the improvements he made to Holtby’s game were nothing more than finishing touches on an already very strong tracking mind and positional reliance. His encouragement for Holtby to continue perfecting his tracking game — something that the 26 year old Saskatchewan native has become known for around the league — likely helped push what was already a very good goaltender into being truly great.
It’s interesting to consider that an amazing playoff run in 2012 helped thrust Holtby to the forefront of the Capitals’ depth chart, particularly since the club had three excellent young netminders — himself, Michal Neuvirth, and Semyon Varlamov — all in the system right around the same time. The thought of things having played out different for any of the three netminders seems unfathomable; I can’t picture Semyon Varlamov as the face of the 2015 Capitals playoff run, just like I can’t picture Holtby backstopping those godawful Sabres last year. It’s funny how things work out like that.
I’m getting distracted, though — back to Holtby.
I attribute Holtby’s success, even now, to the two things that I’ve already highlighted — his strong structural foundation and his heavy reliance on effective tracking. He doesn’t move out of position unless he needs to, and he tracks the puck with a seemingly eerie precision; then, once the save or block has been made, he snaps right back to attention. He’s a bit jerkier in net than a lot of other tracking-based goalies or technically structured goalies — you could almost compare the aggressiveness of his moves to those of Pekka Rinne, though with a different style to the moves themselves — but he makes it work for him.
Of course, there’s more to it than just that. Holtby handles the puck quite well, and he’s got an agility and flexibility that likely help him make such quick, crisp, snapping movements in net with the regularity that he does. He tracks with his eyes when possible, not just his head; if you see him make a sprawling save, his eyes and head immediately turn back to face the front of the net and start to seek out the puck as he rotates back to his starting point. It’s a seamless move that he makes nearly every time he’s forced to scramble, and it’s fascinating to watch as a goaltender.
Watching Holtby play is fun; he’s got an extremely distinct style of play despite being far from the only tracking-heavy goaltender in the NHL, and those quirks that make him Braden Holtby are part of what keep his game so exciting to witness. While he still isn’t perfect — no goaltender is — so much about Hotlby’s game lends itself to success in the NHL; I think he could continue to get better, and I think we’re going to be privileged to witness it.
Happy Hockey Season!
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