Just over halfway into the season, Braden Holtby has already played in 39 of the Washington Capitals' 45 games. He's on pace to shatter his own single-season record for games played at the NHL level (48 last season, although he played in 61 pro games in the 2013 season). A big reason he's played so many games is that he's played exceptionally well. "Riding the hot hand" is more than enough to justify keeping Holtby in the net. But at what cost? For how long? At some point he'll need a rest (right?). And that leads us to the second reason he's played so many games - Holtby's backup, Justin Peters, hasn't been very good. At all.
This isn't to dump on the guy. He's a back-up goalie and he has a career .900 save percentage (.904 entering this season). He costs less than a million dollars per year against the salary cap. We all knew what he was when he signed with the team, and nobody should have expected exceptional goaltending (certainly not the level of back-up goaltending the team received last year).
But even given those tempered expectations, he's failed to meet them. Things have been so rough that Holtby has started both games of a back-to-back set three times since Halloween, and now there are calls for Peters to be demoted to Hershey and replaced with one of last year's backup goalies, Philipp Grubauer. It's always tempting to bring talented young players to the NHL, but compare Grubauer's 27 AHL appearances to Peters' 8 NHL appearances - kids need playing time to develop, and backing up Holtby isn't going to offer that.
But is either move really necessary? Has Peters been bad enough to force Holtby into such a heavy workload? Does Grubauer's playing time need to be sacrificed, thus slowing his development to make up for the woes in backup goaltending?
Yes and no.
Things have been bad. Very bad. Peters is 73rd in save percentage, out of the 78 goalies that have played in an NHL game this season. Only one goalie that can even be conceivably called a backup-level goalie is lower than him (Ilya Bryzgalov, who wouldn't have a contract but for some injury problems in Anaheim). That's bad.
But the Caps, now that they sit among the top of the League in terms of possession, don't need exceptional goaltending from their backup goalie. They need credible goaltending. The .864 that Peters has on the season isn't credible, but it's also well below his career average (again, .904 coming in to the season) and he's only 28 so you wouldn't think his physical skills would have eroded.
To be fair to Peters, five of his six starts have come on the back-end of back-to-backs. We know that's already a disadvantage (especially with this team), so to some degree we should recognize that Peters hasn't generally been getting the Caps' A-game in front of him. That's not an excuse, though, as he was the most well-rested player on the ice, and he frequently hasn't played like it. Playing the second night of back-to-backs is tough enough, the Caps don't need another hurdle erected by Peters.
If Peters could have provided the Caps with his career-average goaltending, that would have saved them seven goals on the season. That's almost one goal per game, and it's just above the generally-accepted "six goals equals a win" rule of thumb. And, if you look at some of his starts, those seven saves could easily have resulted in more than one regulation win (looking specifically at the Dallas and Phoenix games). Sure, all five goals-against in the Dallas game followed pretty egregious defensive breakdowns... but five goals-against on 26 shots is simply unacceptable. You cannot win games like that. NHL goalies need to make tough saves at some point, even backups. And Peters knows it:
But then there were the ones Peters wanted back, like struggling to recover onto Jamie Benn’s goal, the winner after Nicklas Backstrom blasted a one-timer with less than four minutes remaining. Or Jason Spezza’s second-period score, which put the Stars up 3-0 after it went underneath Peters’ arm.
"Yeah it actually went through me," Peters said. "He didn’t get all of what he wanted on it. Quick pass across, there with my body, just too anxious. If I was a little more patient, tightened up, it would’ve hit me."
Just by playing at his career average level, Peters would have saved seven more shots. We aren't even talking about a major improvement. He doesn't need to find a gear that nobody expected (a la Michael Leighton in 2010). He just needs to play at the level to which we've become accustomed. Assuming Peters plays at roughly the same pace over the second half, boosting his save percentage to his career average would project to save the Caps another ~6 goals, two more precious points in a tight playoff race. It's not a lot to ask.
So, no, the Caps don't need to make any rash decisions regarding their backup goaltending situation. At least not right now. They do need to find a way to get Holtby some rest, but for now they should try to get Peters a couple more starts before the trade deadline and hope that he gets some positive regression to his career mean. If he can't figure things out by mid-February, though, the Caps will need to bring in a goalie that can give Holtby a night off here and there, whether that goalie comes from Hershey or outside the organization.