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Braden Holtby: Slow Starter?

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A look into the emerging conventional wisdom that a bumpy Autumn should be expected from the Caps' netminder

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There's a prevailing thought among some Caps fans and observers that Braden Holtby, despite his tremendous talent and successes so far in his still-young career, is a bit of a slow starter - while he's light's out in the spring, he's lit up in the fall. Certainly that was the case last season, as Holtby limped into November and sported an .891 save percentage through his first nine starts. As we noted a week after Halloween with the team struggling to win games, "[t]he good news is that the Caps' defense appears to truly be solid; the bad news is that the goaltending has been abysmal.... On the bright side, we know it's going to get better." And it did.

So Holtby needs a little time to work into mid-season form (there's a reason it's called "mid-season form," right?). It's conventional wisdom... but is it accurate? A quick glance at his career splits in the NHL would seem to corroborate that notion:

Holtby NHL

(Note that the GAA axis is inverted so that it moves along with save percentage... just go with it.)

Clearly, Holtby waits until New Year's and then gets his act together. Case closed, right?

Well, not so fast. Theoretically, a "slow starter" would be that wherever he's starting, so let's take a look at whether the pattern persists down a level; here are his AHL splits:

Holtby AHL

Not so much. Combine the two (which isn't entirely fair, but maybe it gives us a rough approximation of what's going on) and you get the following:

Holtby Pro

Holtby takes a bit of a dip leading up to Thanksgiving (U.S. Thanksgiving, that is), crushes December (to the tune of an NHL/AHL combined 29-12-5/.929/2.11 line), then hits a rough patch in the "dog days" before ramping it up again before the end of the season. Are the peaks and valleys more than just random variance with a lot of noise? Maybe... but this is still just a 25-year-old with five pro seasons (and several pro coaches) under his belt.

But an adjustment to the pace of NHL hockey would make sense and perhaps it's not so much an "October/November" thing as it is an adaptation period. After all, Holtby's first NHL games of the season have been after January 1 as often as they've been in October. In fact, there are only two seasons in which he's played even a single NHL game in October, and, prior to the last two seasons, he had a grand total of five pre-New Year's NHL games under his belt. In light of that, here's what Holtby's cumulative stats  look like by NHL game (so, for example, "Game 13" represents all of his thirteenth NHL games of the season, along with all the games that came before them):

Holtby YTD

The samples there get smaller as the chart moves to the right, of course - Holtby's played his first game of an NHL season five times, but his 73rd just once (after seven games, the sample drops to four, and then to three after 14 games, two after 36 and one after 48). And there is a bit of a blip at the beginning - in games one through five of his NHL seasons (25 games total), Holtby has posted an .886 save percentage and 3.38 goals against average; in NHL games six through 73 of his seasons (153 games), those numbers spike to .925 and 2.31, which are obviously much more reflective of his overall numbers.

So is Braden Holtby a "slow starter"? Maybe. His NHL splits would say yes, and he has typically taken a handful of games to find his rhythm at the NHL level, which is something to keep in mind in the weeks ahead (and in an improved Metro Division, the Caps won't be able to give away as many points in October and November as they did last year). But with a less clear AHL trend and the overall sample size issues and noise in the data, there's probably not enough there to conclusively say one way or the other.

Most importantly, of course, for playoff-bound teams, it's not so much how you start as how you finish, and Braden Holtby has the highest career playoff save percentage in the modern era among goalies with at least 20 appearances. Yeah, that'll do... so long as the occasional Autumn hiccup is nothing more than that.