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Braden Holtby’s Start: A(nother) Spooky October or...?

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A look at the Caps’ number one netminder’s past, present and maybe future

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

No one is harder on Braden Holtby than Braden Holtby.

“It’s unacceptable on my half,” he told The Athletic’s Tarik El-Bashir after failing to make a stop on the three shots he faced before being pulled from Monday’s game against Colorado. “The last few games here I feel like I (can) put a lot of that weight on my shoulders. ...I need to be better.”

Reasonable minds can disagree as to how to apportion blame for those three goals or any of the 18 he’s allowed so far this season, but the bottom line is just flat ugly - Holtby’s .846 all-situation save percentage is dead last in the League among goalies with more than 180 minutes played (his five-on-five mark of .852 also has him at the bottom of the list), and his save percentages, by start, has gone .909, .893, .846, .842 and .000. All of this has happened while the team in front of him has dramatically reduced the shots its goalies are facing at five-on-five, particularly with regards to high-danger chances (these score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five numbers come via Natural Stat Trick, and are actual good news, though perhaps we should take those improvements with a shaker of salt):

“Unacceptable”? We’ll get back to that in a minute. But this is the part of the post where we talk about how these are tiny samples in a body of work for a goalie that has faced more than 12,000 shots over a decade and stopped nearly 92 percent of them. Moreover, Holtby is a notoriously slow starter. Via Hockey-Reference:

Last October, Holtby posted a save percentage of .888 and followed it up with a respectable-if-unspectacular .914 the rest of the way (as a point of reference, only ten goalies, League-wide, appeared in 40 or more games last season and had a save percentage at or above .914).

So if you’re not particularly worried about Holtby’s start, that’s fine - there’s some supporting evidence there to justify your calmness.

On the other hand, Braden Holtby is 30 years old and, well, Father Time comes for us all, doesn’t he? Pulling back a little from our five-game sample or even last year’s 82 games of data, here’s a look at Holtby’s 20-game rolling save percentage over his career (data via Hockey-Reference):

And here it is over a 10-game roller:

You get the point, and the thing to focus on there is that dotted trend line. It’s... not hugely encouraging and should serve as a giant caveat emptor to whomever signs the pending free agent to his next (presumably huge) contract. (On a sidenote, there’s probably another story to be told here, and that’s about Mitch Korn and an encumbered Dave Prior as two of the great goalie coaches the game has ever seen.) This, of course, is by no means a unique trend - it’s a fairly typical aging curve, more or less (this chart comes via Hockey-Graphs, and the post from which it’s extracted is very much worth your time):

When goalies fall off, it tends to be swift and steep.

So what should we expect from Braden Holtby going forward? All else equal, it’s likely he’ll still have have some “ups,” but also likely that he’ll continue to become less effective over larger samples. Holtby is no longer an elite goaltender, and the likelihood that he gets back there isn’t great. This isn’t the end or the beginning of the end for him, but, in reality, somewhere in between.

Granted, there’s precedent for those “ups” to come at the right time and for something special to happen (again) - by far Holtby’s worst season was 2017-18, a campaign during which he posted a .907 save percentage and was on the bench to start the playoffs. That spring turned out alright. But the guy who was once posting some of the best postseason numbers the game has ever seen sandwiched that playoff run with save percentages of .909 and .914. Life’s like a box of chocolates, etc.

All of which brings us back to Holtby’s “unacceptable” start to the season. Yes, it’s been bad, and, yes, it’ll almost certainly get better. But with his heir apparent waiting (or not waiting) in the wings, and despite the team rightly backing the goalie who ended 40-plus years of frustration for this franchise, we all need to accept the likely reality going forward. Aging, as it turns out, is not only acceptable, but expected.