Photo: Amanda Bowen
In theory, a legitimately great goaltender playing at the top of their game remains the most valuable chess piece on the board. While the sweetest and most sustainable long-term music is made when all of the figurines up front are working together in perfect harmony, what separates the goalie from the others in importance as they lurk in the background is two-fold: they’ll essentially always be on the ice, and unlike with anyone else there’s ultimately only so much the rest of their teammates can do to shelter them.
Given enough time the puck will eventually expose a lousy netminder, while a dominant stopper will always give their team a chance to stay competitive regardless of how much quality (or more appropriately, lack thereof) there is in front of them. A goalie truly is the ultimate equalizer, either by mopping up mistakes and masking various flaws, or by submarining the efforts of everyone else. That’s not to say that there aren’t players at other positions who can markedly impact those around them, because there undoubtedly are, but it’s remarkable how much a goalie can single-handedly move the needle. It being the position whose performance we can project with the lowest level of certainty year over year is surely ironic, if not somewhat tragic.
The fact that the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association didn’t officially determine a goalie to be the league’s “Most Valuable Player” in the form of the Hart Trophy for over a decade shouldn’t obscure that. In between Jose Theodore (2002) and Carey Price (2015), we’ve been treated to some herculean efforts in the blue crease during that stretch. Nine of the 14 instances in NHL history in which a goalie saved at least 93 percent of shots he faced in a season, while appearing in a minimum of 50 games, have happened during that window of time (acknowledging that those are arbitrary cutoffs because people like nice round numbers, but aren’t meant to disparage seasons that just fell short like Ryan Miller’s .929 save percentage in ‘09-’10):
|Goalie||Season||Games Played||Save %||Finish in Hart Voting|
There’s one instant takeaway from the list above. Dominik Hasek is the greatest player to ever play the position and it’s not even really close. There’s a reason most of the prolific individual performances have come in the past couple of years. The baseline for goaltending league-wide is significantly higher than it used to be thanks to the craft’s evolution and how much the game itself has changed. The fact that Hasek’s numbers compare favorably to the best the modern day has to offer even before they’re adjusted for different eras speaks to how far ahead of his time he was. For some further context, when he posted a .930 save percentage in ‘93-’94, the league average was .895. Meanwhile, last season Ben Scrivens and Ray Emery were the only regularly used goalies (of the 41 with at least 30 appearances to their name) to be below the .900 threshold.
The campaign Carey Price put together last year became the new gold standard against which future season-long goalie performances will be measured. Braden Holtby’s statistical resume this season sizes up to it fairly comparably at this point in time:
|2014-2015 Carey Price||2015-2016 Braden Holtby|
|Goals Against Average||1.96||1.99|
|5v5 Adjusted Save %||0.939||.0937|
|Overall Save %||0.933||0.931|
|Quality Start % (save % > league avg.)||59.1||67.6|
|Blow-Up Start % (save % < .850)||9.1||8.1|
*Projected pace based on usage to-date
While the numbers themselves are in the same neighborhood, Holtby has a couple of limiting external factors that are worth keeping in mind when broaching this subject. First and foremost, he’s generally not perceived to be as vital to his team’s success as Price was. Understandably so when looking at how dramatically the Canadiens have unravelled this season in Price’s absence. Whereas Holtby happens to be playing among a group of players that boasts the league’s second leading goal scorer and two top-10 playmakers.
Yet despite ceding much of his spotlight to those guys, Holtby’s contributions in hoisting the Capitals back atop the league standings shouldn’t be marginalized. He’s not only near the top of every single imaginable category for his position, but he’s also well on his way to joining that illustrious group of sparkling individual goalie seasons listed above. While I didn’t cite win totals because of how far we’ve come as a community in recognizing how ultimately irrelevant they are when attributed to a single player, it’s worth noting that Holtby is currently on pace to set the single-season record for a goalie (topping Martin Brodeur’s 48 nearly a decade ago). It’s easy to imagine the luster of a trivial accomplishment such as that one being an enticing one for much of the demographic that decides these things.
Whether that’ll be enough to get his name legitimately into Hart Trophy contention remains to be seen. Barring some sort of otherworldly run in the second half of the season, the list of viable candidates can realistically be counted on one hand. Erik Karlsson probably should win the award going by its definition, but his team not being very good and his specific style of play inexplicably irking old school hockey people are both working against him. The Dallas guys could cannibalize each other’s votes, and Patrick Kane may drop should voters be justifiably wary of acknowledging his on-ice excellence due to his off-ice transgressions.
Throwing another wrinkle into the matter is that the competition at Holtby’s very own position among his peers is as great and deep as it’s ever been. While Petr Mrazek was losing some work in the first couple weeks of the season, he’s been neck and neck with Holtby ever since. Ben Bishop, Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, and Marc Andre Fleury have all been spectacular in their own rights. As as result it’s become tougher to separate one’s self from the pack when there’s a laundry list of others who are all doing remarkable things themselves.
How the rest of the season goes as those players jostle for goalie supremacy ultimately won’t bear much importance for the Capitals given their lofty big picture team goals. Considering the present-day gap they’ve created between themselves and everyone else in the East, they’re surely already looking ahead to what’ll hopefully be a long playoff run. Part of that could very well mean Philipp Grubauer receiving more work than he otherwise would as they make a concerted effort to keep everyone fresh.
While he’s just one component of that multipronged attack, it’s Holtby’s individual greatness that’s put this incarnation of the Capitals over the top as possibly the most dangerous team they’ve ever enjoyed in Washington during The Ovechkin Era. How Adam Oates managed to fumble this one during his time behind that very same bench remains one of hockey’s great mysteries.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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