Braden Holtby didn’t spend much time celebrating his first Vezina Trophy.
Shortly after he was named the NHL’s top goaltender for the 2015-16 season Holtby was back in hibernation at the lake north of his hometown of Lloydminster, Sask. It’s long been the Washington Capitals star’s off-season retreat, and even winning the prestigious goaltending award wasn’t going to change that.
“I love the city,” Holtby said in a recent interview. “But it’s also nice to recharge away from it.”
If not consumed by the allure of another award, the 27-year-old is nonetheless back in the Vezina conversation this year, surging to the top of the goalie heap in recent weeks. Holtby has a league-best .938 save percentage, 1.77 goals against average, and five shutouts since Dec. 1, edging out current Vezina favourites Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, not to mention Carey Price and everyone else in all three categories.
Presidents’ Trophy winners last season for best regular-season record, Washington has risen back to the top of the NHL again this year in large part because of Holtby. He’s actually topping the career-best numbers he put up last year, boasting a 1.96 goals against average (2.20 last year), .930 save percentage (.922), .940 even-strength save percentage (.928), as well as six shutouts (three).
He recently went five consecutive starts without allowing a single even-strength goal before getting pulled in the Capitals last game, an 8-7 overtime defeat to Pittsburgh which snapped a nine-game win streak.
“My goal every year is just to be better than I was the last season, be a better goaltender, leader, prepare better,” said Holtby. “My goal is to improve in my eyes. Statistics aren’t always an indicator of improvement or not or the other way around. I just come every day trying to get better.”
The numbers would suggest that Holtby’s gotten stronger with each month this season â€” from a .917 save percentage in October to a .939 showing in January. But argues “tough luck” was more a factor early on, “weird goals” somehow finding their way into the net amid a good, if not great start for both the Caps and their No. 1 netminder.
“And when you look at goaltending statistics it doesn’t take much to change things; it’s one or two goals,” said Holtby, who entered the season with more career wins and shutouts than the nine goalies picked before him combined in the 2008 draft. “A lot of the times you’re playing a percentage and there’s something open; the shooter just has to hit it. Some days he hits it, sometimes he doesn’t.”
Vezina aside, Holtby wanted to deliver a more consistent performance in his bid to improve in the Washington crease this season. He didn’t like how the second half went last year â€” he posted just a .911 save percentage after the all-star break â€” and determined that he needed to manage his rest better, the all-star break being one such example.
Holtby found that he almost got “more exhausted” during his first all-star appearance, unable to adequately rest over three days in Nashville.
He’ll try to get a better handle on that at next week’s event in Los Angeles, joining Bobrovsky as one of two goalies for the Metropolitan Division.
The Capitals’ bye week in February should help too, though Holtby says he prefers a hectic schedule in some ways for the rhythm it allows him to build in the crease.
A fourth round pick of the Capitals, Holtby was about average in his first two full NHL seasons before joining the elite in the ’14-15 campaign. Since that point he trails only Price and Dubnyk in save percentage (minimum 100 starts), while outpacing all NHL goaltenders with 18 shutouts.
He credits Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn for his technical progress and head coach Barry Trotz and Washington’s beefed up blue-line for team-wide improvements.
Holtby matched Martin Brodeur’s NHL record with 48 wins last year, but doesn’t seem at all concerned with becoming the first goalie since Brodeur to capture the Vezina in back-to-back seasons. He wanted to win one as a kid because that’s what his heroes, including three-time winner Patrick Roy, did.
“But as I got older it wasn’t as much of a goal, it was more focusing on the team and trying to win a Stanley Cup,” Holtby said. “It’s not a big deal to me right now.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press