We still may be about a month away from the NHL playoffs getting underway, but for Braden Holtby, his start against the New York Islanders could be the biggest of his season.
There was a time when it wasn’t a question of who the top netminder was for the Washington Capitals. It was going to be Holtby, the former Vezina and Jennings Trophy winner, who tied Martin Brodeur’s record for wins in a season with 48 back during the 2015/16 campaign.
Now, though, depending on how this start goes, Barry Trotz may need to seriously reevaluate his goalie situation heading into the postseason.
There is no doubting that at the top of his game, Holtby is one of the best goalies in the league. He has the numbers, and the hardware, to prove it. Coming off another strong season in which he led the league in wins, and was the runner-up to the Veznia (given to the league’s top goalie), Holtby had a disaster of a postseason, which unfortunately has carried over into this year.
Having posted the worst numbers of his playoff career, Holtby and the Capitals were bounced by the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second straight year.
This season Holtby has seen the same kind of troubles, leaving him with the worst statistical season of his career.
Holtby has posted a 3.03 goals-against-average (GAA) to go along with a .907 save percentage (SV%). Not magical numbers, to say the least.
While struggling to maintain the division lead, fighting off the Penguins, as well as the revitalized Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals can’t afford to keep playing Holtby and let him try to ‘work things out’ on the ice.
Over the last eight games, Holtby has posted a 1-5-2 record, to go along with a 4.83 GAA and a .853 SV%. Things looked that they might have been turning for the better after stopping 27-of-29 shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the Stadium Series game, but was pulled quickly after allowing three goals on nine shots in just 25 minutes versus the Anaheim Ducks.
After that, Trotz made the decision to give Holtby a ‘mental reset’, and play Philipp Grubauer, the backup who was thought of as one of the most sought after at his position this past offseason.
Grubauer, now 26, has emerged as one of the best backups in the league and is expected at some point to get a chance to be the starter.
The thought was originally it would be elsewhere, but thanks to his stellar play and Holtby’s struggles, it may be in Washington.
When compared to every goalie who has at least 1,000 minutes of 5v5 play, no goalie has a better SV% than Grubauer (.945). He is also the best at stopping high-danger chances, posting a .875 mark in those situations. Holtby has a .762 SV% in those same opportunities, sixth worst in the league.
Since the start of February, Holtby has posted the second-worst goals-against per 60 (GA/60) at 5v5, and the worst SV%.
Grubauer getting the nod
In the four games since ‘temporarily’ taking over the starting job, Grubauer is 3-1 and has posted a .940 SV% to go along with a 1.76 GAA. Those numbers drop even further when you factor in the Anaheim game in which he stopped all eight shots he faced over the 33 minutes he played.
For Holtby, this start against the Islanders is as big as it gets for him. If he wants to reclaim the spot he needs a strong outing against a team that is quickly floundering to the bottom of the standings.
It may be a long shot to see Grubauer become the permanent replacement for Holtby but depending on how his ‘reset’ went for him, it is something that could be considered.
The Capitals did something different at the deadline, opting not to make a big move to acquire a costly rental. To finally get past the second round, maybe they need to go against the grain in more than one way.
Perhaps, in order to finally get over the hump, they need to make a move this drastic.
Whether it happens remains to be seen, but the Capitals’ goalie situation is something to watch as the playoffs continue to get closer and closer, and it all begins Friday night against the Islanders.
Grubauer vs Holtby... who would you select to be in the Caps' net? Let us know in the comments sections below.