Over the past four seasons, no goaltender has won more games than Braden Holtby. The Capitals netminder has also posted more shutouts, made more saves and spent more time in the crease than any other goaltender. And if there’s anything that speaks to Holtby’s excellence in recent years, it might be that he has accumulated more votes for the Vezina Trophy than any other goaltender in the NHL since the start of the 2014-15 season.
But when Washington takes the ice for Game 1 of their post-season series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Holtby will be watching from the bench as Philipp Grubauer has been handed starting duties ahead of Thursday’s playoff-opening contest. The goaltending decision comes amidst speculation as to who coach Barry Trotz would choose as his Game 1 starter, and it was Grubauer who delivered the news following Tuesday’s practice, adding Trotz made his choice Monday after speaking with both goaltenders.
Given Holtby’s history — not to mention his considerable five-year, $30.5-million contract — it may come as a surprise to some that Trotz has decided to go with his perceived No. 2 netminder ahead of the Capitals’ franchise keeper. Those who have followed Washington closely in recent weeks won’t be as shocked by the decision, however.
Despite piecing together a string of three incredibly successful seasons, Holtby has struggled mightily to find his game throughout the current campaign. He has a sparkling 34-16-4 record, but the reality is Holtby’s record belies his actual performance between the pipes this season. In his 54 appearances, the 28-year-old has managed a .907 save percentage and 2.99 goals-against average. Holtby also went the entire campaign without registering a single clean sheet, which is somewhat surprising given he had 21 shutouts in his previous 201 starts entering this season. And while Holtby’s year-long numbers are troubling, that he has lost the crease has more to do with his recent play than it does his entire body of work.
Since Jan. 1, Holtby has appeared in 24 games for the Capitals, and though he has a decent 12-8-4 record over that span, his statistics are otherwise abysmal – he had an .894 SP and 3.46 GAA in those games. To put that into context, there are 36 goaltenders who have played at least 20 games since the start of January. Holtby’s SP is the second-worst mark and he has the second-highest GAA. Furthermore, of the 32 goaltenders to play 900 minutes at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1, Holtby’s .905 SP is the worst in the league.
There’s no doubt that Holtby’s numbers alone should have been enough to make Trotz question whether the Capitals’ longtime starter was the right call for the first-round tilt with the Blue Jackets. But the coach’s decision to sit Holtby in favor of Grubauer was made easier given the latter’s performance during this miserable stretch for his creasemate.
Over the same four-plus month span dating back to Jan. 1, Grubauer has appeared in 22 outings with a 13-5-1 record. More importantly, though, the 26-year-old has usurped Holtby thanks to a .931 SP and 2.14 GAA. Both marks are the second-best in the NHL since the new year began. Better yet, though, is that Grubauer’s 5-on-5 numbers are equally as impressive. Of the same group of 32 goaltenders to play 900 minutes at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1, Grubauer ranks fourth with a .942 SP.
It’s not as though Grubauer’s more favorable numbers can be attributed to anything other than his own play, either. Across the back half of the season, Grubauer’s rates per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 were as follows: 31 shots against, 62 shot attempts against, 29.6 scoring chances against and 12.7 high-danger chances against. As for Holtby, he saw 32 shots against, 61.8 shot attempts against, 32 scoring chances against and 12.5 high-danger chances against. The differences there are almost entirely negligible, but the fact Grubauer allowed 1.8 goals against per 60 to Holtby’s 3.1 rate speaks volumes about their respective levels of play over the past four months.
The only fact-based argument that could have been made to support Holtby starting over Grubauer is that one has a history of performing well in the playoffs while the other is almost entirely untested. Over the past six seasons, Holtby has seen action in 59 post-season contests, and while his 29-30 record isn’t dazzling, his career .932 SP and 2.00 GAA stand out as two of the best marks in the post-lockout era. Matter of fact, Holtby has the second-best career SP — best among active players — of the 33 netminders to see at least 50 playoff games in the current era and only two goaltenders have a better GAA, with Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray as the only active keeper with a better mark. Grubauer, meanwhile, has played in two playoff games and started just once. He has a 1-0 record, .883 SP and 3.80 GAA.
Washington shouldn’t be banking on hope or expectation as they enter the post-season, though. Rather, the Capitals need to look at the facts and the stats, which say, quite simply, that Grubauer has been the better netminder for the entirety of this campaign. And in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Grubauer appears in every way to be the goaltender that is going to give Washington the best chance of finally making a deep post-season run.
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