Washington goalie Braden Holtby is good. We know this. Holtby won the award for the league’s best goalie two seasons ago and was runner-up last year. He has the league’s highest 5-on-5 save percentage and fifth highest goals-saved-above-average since he entered the league. He currently owns the second best all-time playoff save rate.
But 2017-18 has been cruel to Holtby. He’s still winning games (27-10-2), but his save percentage has taken a big dip. He’s not even in the Vezina conversation, and that has some folks on edge.
It’s not just our imaginations. Holtby’s save percentage during 5-on-5 play really has fallen off.
Aside from a brief but drastic drop in early 2016, Holtby’s current performance is the worst it’s been since those brutal Adam Oates days. It would be easy to personalize that decline and place the blame on Holtby alone, but I think we should resist that convenience.
Because we know, contextually, that the quality of shots Holtby is facing is much higher than it used to be. Expected save percentage, as presented by Corsica, considers what the save percentage would be if an average goalie faced a certain profile of shots. Below are Holtby’s expected save percentage numbers over the last few seasons. The sigma column (“σ”) shows how far out of the ordinary (measured in standard deviations) each save percentage is.
Over the last five years, Holtby has gone from having one of the easier workloads in the league to one of the toughest.
This isn’t a function of shot volume, which has gone up, but rather the distribution of low, medium, and high danger shots inside those volumes. It’s those more dangerous shots that have spiked up this season.
Numbers via Natural Stat Trick
Of the top 39 goalies by ice-time this season, Holtby has faced a higher rate of high-danger shots (12.9 per hour) than everyone except Arizona’s Scott Wedgewood and NYI’s Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. (For the record, Holtby has saved a higher percentage of shots than all of them except Halak, who has bested Holtby to the tune of one extra save per thousand shots faced).
All of that speaks to a decline among Caps skaters at limiting opponent chances, which is their single biggest problem this season. Scoring chances, for example, have skyrocketed 22 percent this season.
We can see this in a heatmap from Micah McCurdy’s Hockeyviz, where red indicates more opponent shots compared to league average. The net is at the the bottom of the chart, right below the bright red blob.
Heatmaps like this are great because they provide an at-a-glance way to see how the defensive profile of the Caps has changed over the last few years – from deeply troubled in 2011-12 to downright stout over the last few years.
All those defensive struggles manifest as the diminishment of maybe the world’s best goalie to someone merely mediocre. A goalie does not control how many shots he faces or where those shots come from, so if a player’s save percentage drops in line with his expected save percentage, that’s probably a team-wide problem. That’s what this is, but absolution for Holtby isn’t the point here. The point is how plainly predictable this drop-off was.
Washington lost two-thirds of its best line last season in Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams. They lost the buoy on their bottom line, Dan Winnik. They lost in Nate Schmidt a defenseman who delivered league-best numbers when paired with a struggling, stay-at-home veteran. Replacing them with players like Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson, and Madison Bowey, and then expecting no penalty would have been madness. There was a cost to last summer, and it’s the goalies who are cutting the checks.
Backup goalie Philipp Grubauer has suffered a similar but smaller decline this season. At the end of last season, he was at the top of his class with a sterling 94.0 save percentage during 5-on-5. With that performance came a good deal of trade buzz, but after Vegas selected Schmidt in the expansion draft, the goalie market seemingly dried up, and the Caps held onto him. As assets, both he and Holtby have lost value this season. That depreciation is just another result of the roster decisions made by the front office over the summer.
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