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Braden Holtby and Bouncing Back

A look at the performance of the team’s two goaltenders, and what that might mean in the near term and the long term.

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When Ilya Samsonov takes the net tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes, he’ll be the first Washington Capital goaltender to do so in the new decade. It’s poetic in a way, as it stands to reason that the first-round draft pick and upstart rookie will be a common sight guarding the Caps’ goal for much of the 2020s.

But with 29 appearances on the current campaign to Samsonov’s 14, the net still belongs to Braden Holtby... or at least it does for the time being.

Holtby’s recent stretch of poor play — one of the poorest of his impressive career, which we’ll unpack more in a moment — and Samsonov’s relative reliability have lent a sense of credibility to the idea that the future is now in the Capitals’ net. In fact, so far in the 2019-20 campaign Samsonov is outperforming Holtby by just about any measure available:

We’re going to keep our focus on Braden Holtby for awhile, because these numbers reflect quite poorly on him. That -8.03 GSAA figure above signifies that Holtby has let 8 more goals in at five on five than what would be expected of a goaltender performing at league average. That’s not the type of performance you expect from a guy of Holtby’s pedigree.

Speaking of, let’s take a look back at Holtby’s performance over the course of his career, using five-on-five Sv% as our baseline metric, using 5 game, 14 game, and 30 game rolling slices to represent short, medium, and longer stretches of play.

Straight away, what jumps out is that Holtby’s most recent five-stretch game is the second worst he’s ever put forth, at least at five on five. His fourteen game stretch is looking pretty rough too, and his 30 game rolling average is amidst a nosedive. Not a great look for Braden — but perhaps if we take a closer look we’ll find some cause for hope.

The biggest grain of salt with regards to Holtby’s last five games is that a five-game sample is generally too small from which to draw any conclusions. In fact, you don’t have to look that far back to see Holtby bouncing back admirably from the last worst five-game stretch of his career. It’s easy enough to eyeball his resilience over the years; that save percentage always snaps back to average sooner than later. However, three of Holtby’s lowest marks have coming in the last season or so, which is alarming.

Now, let’s do the same exercise for his fourteen game averages, which, not-so-coincidentally, represents Ilya Samsonov’s body of work. Samsonov’s performance has been put into the plot for comparison.

What we can see here is that while it’s been a terrible fourteen games (which represents somewhere around six weeks worth of starts) for Holtby, there have been lower lows than this, and on more than one occasion. Samsonov’s save percentage is only relevant here for the purposes of comparing Holtby’s historical ebbs and flows to the paltry sample we have for Samsonov, but it is worth noting that every time Holtby has plummeted in a manner similar to what we’re seeing now, he’s bounced back with sustained performance at above the .925 five-on-five Sv% that we’ve seen to date from Samsonov.

Now let’s take a closer look at Holtby’s 30-game rolling save percentages, which gives us a much more significant window by which to understand the macro-trends of his performance.

As we saw with the smaller five and fourteen game windows, we see that Holtby has demonstrated tangible bounceback ability, with the lowest points in his career, of which the present moment most certainly qualifies. However, the more we expand the window, the more it becomes required that we confront an ugly truth: Holtby has been steadily less reliable at stopping pucks for a little over 150 games. J.P. wrote about Holtby and goalie aging curves during Holtby’s rough start to the season, and the season has more or less played out as expected:

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.

Barring something truly magnificent from Holtby in the second half of this campaign, the writing on the wall is perfectly legible. Ilya Samsonov is the goalie of the near future, not only because of his draft capital, youth, and early returns on his talent, but also because it’s impossible to justify a market-meeting deal for a goaltender on Holtby’s trajectory.

What does remain to be seen is who will win the net April and onwards for a team that will be considered a favorite to win a Stanley Cup. It’s impossible to ignore that Samsonov has been the better goaltender between the two this year, but that’s only one factor among many. Samsonov’s starts have been sporadic, and not at all resembling the rigors of a long playoff run, which would command as many as 28 consecutive starts, while Holtby certainly has the requisite experience, and an impressive .928 all situations sv% in a whopping 89 playoff appearances.

The goaltender that will give the Caps the best chance to win over the course of a grueling playoff schedule is not yet evident, but it’s become absolutely clear that Ilya Samsonov has earned a larger share of the net in the second half of the season, so that Todd Rierden can be as confident as possible in whatever decision he makes when that time comes.