On October 14, Braden Holtby played one of the worst games in NHL history, allowing three goals on three shots before getting pulled. It was a crummy start to the season for Holtby, and I’d certainly understand why it has led some people to think he’s over the hill. Holtby won the Vezina in 2015-16, but his last two seasons have been pretty spottty. Still, I’d urge caution before concluding that he’s on an irreversible downturn.
In a big, complicated system with lots of inputs, Holtby is just one player. And I think he’s a very good one.
As of Tuesday morning, Holtby has a .913 save percentage during five-on-five. That’s a mediocre number, and it actually took Holtby a lot of climbing even to get there considering how bad he was in the season’s first two weeks. But I think it’s crucial to appreciate how Holtby’s workload has changed over the last five seasons. As much as his team has been successful over the last half decade, how they’ve been successful has changed dramatically, and it seems like every change had made his job harder.
At least, that had been the case until this season. As we discussed already, the 2019-20 Caps have put together some of their best team defense in years, resulting in opponents’ expected goals rate dropping below league average for the first time since 2016.
That lowered expected goals rate is the product of suppressing more shots and allowing a smaller share of them from dangerous areas close to the net. The graph below, using Natural Stat Trick data, shows that Holtby is finally seeing high-danger shots represent a smaller share of his total shots faced.
While it’s comforting that Holtby is seeing fewer shots and easier shots, that improved workload hasn’t resulted in an improved save percentage — yet. Below are Holtby’s save percentages per season, grouped into bins, color-coded based compared to league average. Green means better than league average; red worse.
Holtby’s at or above average when it comes to saving the 70-percent of non-high danger shots, but he’s significantly below average at high-dangers. Maybe that’s okay though, as the high-danger sample is the smallest and therefore most subject to short-term distortions. Here’s that same data, now as bar graphs.
I’m not really worried about the mediums or lows, and I doubt you are either. The open question is this: can Holtby — now that he’s got a good defense in front of him — make the big saves like he used to?
Even though he’s now on the wrong side of 30, I suspect the answer is yes, but this is an article of faith. I rationalize Holtby’s last two so-so regular season as the consequence of his team not controlling five-on-five play well. I may depart from the conventional wisdom here a bit, but my theory has been that Washington’s defensive breakdowns in 2017-18 and 2018-19 were so acute and so numerous that it made Holtby look worse than he was — considering his context. Those odd-man rushes and one-on-none breakaways and failed crease-clearings had their cost in Holtby’s stats.
But now that context looks like it’s back to good. Here from HockeyViz are heatmaps of the shots that Braden Holtby has seen in each of the last five seasons. Red means the opponent shoots more from a spot compared to league average, and blue means less. You don’t want a big red blob in front of your net, and yet — in 2017-18 and 2018-19 — that’s precisely what you get.
But look at that 2019-20 heatmap. That’s a perfectly respectable distribution of shots for a goalie to face. I consider that a credit to the skaters in front of Holtby — but it’s a challenge to him as well. Washington’s defense is better than it’s been in years. The team is winning. Holtby is healthy, and his job is secure.
So that’s it. No excuses. Now it’s on Braden Holtby to prove he can still do this. I think he can, and I think he will.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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