That said, it’s obvious Holtby is having a down year. I’ve said in the past that Holtby’s struggles in 2017-18 are the cost he bears for the team’s decisions last offseason, but it’s hard to be certain about stuff like that. Hockey is a complicated game with lots of moving parts, so I can understand why assigning blame personally on the goalie is popular with some people, who all seem to be Facebook commenters for some reason:
Ryan And don’t y’all dare blame Holts!!! Hahaha totally being sarcastic! It’s all him guys. We aren’t the best in D or even in goals but to make excuses for a goalie that is so “great” is just a joke. Bench his ass and watch what we do!!!
Mike Cant wait to hear all the its not Holtbys fault blame the defense. Caps held them to 19 shots on net Holtby should have saved them all. Fyi 0 shutouts this season. Not the same Holtby in net this season.
Michael Grubauer should be the starting goalie. Holtby is absolute garbage this season. Almost March and not one shutout, almost 3 goals against average, and 10 goals against in last two games. He is done. Trade is sorry ass and move on.
Eric If Holts hadn’t let in those 3 soft goals in the first, it’d be a different game. Caps completely dominated from the 2nd period on.
Robert Yep. Love holtz but he needs to sit for a bit. Not all in him but Grubs stops atkeast two of those.
(I did not edit the typos because I’m an unkind person.)
I actually think these people are generally right, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Yes, Holtby is not the goalie he was last season. Even he would agree to that. But I think the cause for the drop-off is both apparent and out of his control. If Holtby were backstopping another team right now, I think he’d probably be doing just fine. Not great, but fine.
Let’s first stipulate that Holtby is less than mediocre this season. Here’s a handy visualization brought to you by Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockeyviz.com:
This is a stark decline for Holtby, who has regularly sported a .930 save percentage during 5-on-5 and has perennially been a top goalie. The big difference from past seasons to this one seems to be how many opponent shots are coming from up close, as illustrated by another pair of visualizations from Hockeyviz.
I think it’s obvious which is which. The 2017-18 Capitals subject their goalies to more high-danger, point-blank, gut-shot chances than any team in the league – actually more than any team in the last decade, aside from two particularly horrible Coyotes clubs.
|Team/Season||Opponent HD per hour|
Of the 37 goals Holtby has surrendered during 5-on-5 since the new year, 29 have been classified as high-danger according to Natural Stat Trick. Just one has been classified as low-danger. That suggests to me that Holtby is doing fine on more than 75 percent of this workload (the average and below-average shots) but is getting wrecked on the most dangerous shots, which are more numerous than they’ve ever been.
Those high-danger shots have really ticked up in February (15.0 per hour), an escalation that Holtby’s backup has not seen (11.8 per hour).
These numbers are based on Natural Stat Trick’s shot quality tiers. Corsica’s model disagrees with the implication that Holtby’s workload is easier than Grubauer’s. It expects Holtby to save .918 of shots (actual: .919) and Grubauer to save .910 (actual: .939). In either case, both Washington goalies are performing better (one slightly, one massively) than we should expect of them given the defensive troubles of the team before them.
And that got me thinking: What if Braden Holtby faced the quality of shots that other top goalies in the league faced? What if, instead of getting peppered with 13.1 high-danger shots per hour, he saw just 10.8 like Cam Talbot or 8.8 like Carey Price? Here is that hypothetical, with the What If column representing Holtby’s save percentages applied to that goalie’s workload.
|Goalie||Chance Save %||What If Save %||Diff|
This all assumes that Holtby would save the same percentage of shots at each quality tier, but would face different numbers of shots within each tier. Holtby out-performs seven of the 16 goalies here, ties one (Frederik Andersen), and is bested by eight, including Grubauer (who is included for comparison despite a much smaller sample). That’s still a mediocre performance from Holtby, but it’s a far better one than he is having on his own.
There is a very large caveat to an exercise like this: binning. By classifying all shots into just three categories (high-, medium-, and low-danger), we lose resolution along the margins and extremes. Lots of analysts consider over-reliance on binning to be naughty for that reason, and I don’t think they are wrong. This is more of an abstract thought experiment rather than a proper study, and I mean it only to illustrate that Holtby’s workload is what has driven him to the bottom of the pack in save percentage.
Also, just for curiosity’s sake, Corsica and Natural Stat Trick use different reckonings to classify high-danger chances, though the conclusions are similar. Here are save percentages per goalie against what each site considers high danger.
The differences don’t change the rankings significantly. Holtby is ranked 41st out of these 48 goalies by Corsica’s reckoning and 38th by Natural Stat Trick’s. (Grubauer is ranked first in both.)
What’s curious to me is that Holtby’s lowly saving against high-danger shots doesn’t seem to be exclusive to him. His opponents seem to be struggling similarly.
|High-danger shots faced||440||341|
|High-danger goals against||62||45|
|High-danger save %||0.859||0.868|
That’s only a difference of one additional save on every hundred high-danger shots faced, and both of them are south of the league average, .875. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something about how the Caps are playing this year – low-volume offense in fits and starts, allowing the opponent lots of on-the-rush and odd-man attacks – that is making high-danger chances at both ends of the ice more dangerous than other shots within Natural Stat Trick’s high-danger bin.
The 2017-18 Capitals are on the frontier here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if their systemic and nearly unprecedented failure to contain their opponents is hurting Braden Holtby more than we might expect. Either way, I don’t worry for Holtby in the long term. His team will get better, and maybe they already have. Holtby is probably still one of the best goalies in the league; we just can’t see it right now.
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
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