There was a time when the Caps' organizational depth in net began and ended with Olie Kolzig, a stretch of over a decade when there was little question who would be the starter from year to year - let alone from game to game.
The team's approach to their goaltending situation has changed drastically in the six seasons since Kolzig left DC. Once lacking in goalie prospects, George McPhee has now cultivated a stockpile of netminders, each seemingly better than the last, each poised to be the next franchise goalie - an impressive feat, to his credit, considering the realities of the salary cap and the unpredictable nature of drafting goaltenders. But what they've gained in depth, they've lost in stability. Since Kolzig's departure, the Caps have used seven different netminders; no one has been able to claim the starter's role for more than a year or two at a time before being unseated by the next guy in line, and three straight years they've had a different - and young - goalie play the bulk of the playoff minutes.
Over the last month or so, however, that instability has been kicked up a notch, as the team has elected to keep three goalies - Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer - on the active roster.
On the surface it seems like a good problem to have. So many options, all of whom are seemingly capable NHL goalies, all of whom are on cap-friendly deals - it's a "problem" that at least a few NHL teams would gladly take (some of whom barely have one goalie fitting that criteria). But the situation in which the Caps have put themselves at the moment is anything but good.
Three goalies vying for just two spots in the lineup each game, with just one starter per night is math that just doesn't work. It's too many bodies and too little ice time to go around, particularly with each of the three locked in to a set role by the coaches - and without some sort of change, things are going to get ugly. Or more accurately, uglier.
Start with the fact that Neuvirth (the highest paid of the three, with a new contract handed out in April) is understandably unhappy with his role as designated healthy scratch and has hinted around for a trade - while his agent has done more than hint. For those keeping track at home, that makes three public trade requests (and counting?) already this season, all of which are based solely on how the coaching staff is using, or rather not using, its players. And it means the Caps now have an oft-injured, perpetually healthy-scratched goalie going public with his desire to leave, in an already overcrowded goalie market and a stagnant trade market over all, with at least one other guy wanting to be moved and just about every team in the League facing a cap crunch.
...yeah, that's not exactly what one would call an ideal scenario for making a trade.
Meanwhile Grubauer has indeed played very well since stepping in for an injured Neuvirth a month ago - a fact which led the team to not only keep him after Neuvirth recovered, but also give him the majority of the starts. And while he's been consistently good over that stretch, and at times has been the difference-maker when the team has needed him to be, he hasn't been as sharp of late, most notably in his last start against Carolina (despite what his coach may have said). After playing eight of the last eleven games, including six over a fourteen-day stretch (and back-to-back starts on the road), he's understandably starting to look a bit overworked.
Which brings us to Holtby. Once the team's workhorse and go-to guy, he has started just three of the team's last eleven games, his most recent start coming exactly two weeks after his previous one - the longest he's gone between starts since his final AHL call-up in March of 2012. As one might have expected, things didn't go so well in his return; five goals on eleven shots will just never look pretty, no matter how nice those six saves may have been.
But how much of that is on Holtby, and how much is on the coaching staff?
Rust and a lack of confidence were likely going to be a factor Saturday night... and yet neither one needed to be. There have been opportunities for the coaching staff to give Holtby a chance to bounce back - one of the back-to-back games right before New Year's, for example. Instead they sat him, opting for Grubauer to take both, adding extra workload for Grubauer (who, granted, performed well in those back-to-back games) rather than get Holtby into a game. As a result Holtby is forced to try and regain his form in limited, sporadic starts, while sharing practice time with two other goalies and seeing a few bad weeks seemingly erase the trust his coaches once had in him.
This isn't to take away from what Grubauer has done since being called up, of course; his performance has, at times, made it tough to question the decision to go back to him, especially considering that Holtby in particular has struggled over the last month or so. But while Grubauer may have given the Caps the best chance to win in any of those games, the long-term focus has to be on getting Holtby back on track. Considering that Holtby has had the seventh-highest five-on-five save percentage in the League over the last three seasons, a stretch of well under 1/10th of that shouldn't erase what he's done any more than his hot stretch in November should prove he's unbeatable.
Because the reality is, and has been, that this team goes only as far as he can take them.
The way the Caps' staff is handling Holtby, and the entire goaltending situation, is mystifying... particularly given who the goalie coach is. After all, Kolzig himself has been part of one of the Caps' three-headed monsters in net, playing the role of Holtby to trade deadline-acquisition Cristobal Huet late in the 2007-08 season (with Brent Johnson as Neuvirth, relegated to pressbox duty). If anyone would understand the situation Holtby is in right now, it's the guy who has been there before. He also understands what it's like to play for a coach who maybe doesn't have the full understanding of the position, as he once noted about then-coach Bruce Boudreau:
"Bruce is not a goaltender guy. [...] he's hard on goalies because he doesn't understand the position. And a lot of coaches that haven't played the position are usually that way. You know: 'Just stop the puck and get it done. Doesn't matter how or what.'"
To his credit, Adam Oates has admitted that the situation is not ideal - for any of the three goalies under his watch, not just Holtby. But the fact remains that he makes the final call on who gets the net from night to night. Ultimately it's his job to manage the three goalies (and their confidence), to find a solution that works with what he's been given, and right now the "solution" - to stick with the hot hand - does not seem like one that will end well for the team.
Because eventually one would imagine that Grubauer is going to cool off. How much, we don't know, but the numbers he's put up so far will likely take a hit as the rest of the League begins to figure him out, or as he gets worn down, or both. If and when that happens, what's Plan B? What options have they left themselves? Instead of having a solid goalie tandem in place, they'll have to choose between an overworked rookie, a starter who lacks confidence and an unhappy number two who hasn't played since before Thanksgiving. Throw in an already-struggling team and it doesn't look pretty.
There is certainly something to be said for going with the hot hand when the situation dictates it. But when doing so creates a negative atmosphere, when it requires the backup to be a healthy scratch and prevents the starter from getting his groove back, and when the team is losing anyway, it just doesn't make sense. It's a distraction, and an unnecessary one - a tenuous situation that becomes harder to unravel the longer it continues.