Enter Braden Holtby

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When it comes to interesting situations in the NHL, it is tough to beat the happenings in Washington’s crease.  Entering the season, the team was faced with a difficult choice in net, between:

  • Semyon Varlamov, a 22-year old taken 23rd overall in the 2006 NHL Draft, who had stepped into the breach in the 2008-09 playoffs and was coming off a 15-4-6 run and 0.909 SV%
  • or Michal Neuvirth, a 22-year old taken 34th overall in 2006, coming off a similarly impressive 9-4-0 run along with 0.914 SV%

Neuvirth has taken the majority of starts in Washington this year, for a variety of reasons, but a complicated scenario has turned positively Byzantine thanks to the emergence of another young goaltender: Braden Holtby.

The Capitals were forced to turn to third-stringer Holtby after both Varlamov (who suffered a knee injury in late February) and Neuvirth (lower body injury in early February) both went down.  He’s responded in spectacular fashion, stopping 83 of 84 shots over three consecutive starts.  Over 11 games this season, his stats line is sparkling: 7-2-2, 0.934 SV%.

Is Holtby for real, though?  Obviously, it is a near-certainty that he isn’t a reincarnation of Dominik Hasek in his prime as a rookie NHL’er, so we shouldn’t expect his 0.934 SV% to continue.  What I mean by that earlier question is this: is he a legitimate prospect with a bright future, or a suspect goaltender on a hot streak?  Let’s look at his career to-date for some answers.

Holtby was drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 Draft from Saskatoon of the WHL.  His 0.908 SV% over 64 games is a decent if unspectacular number, although it towered above that posted by his back-up (Garrett Zemlack, 0.877 SV%).  Holtby improved that number slightly the following year, up to 0.910.  As a junior, there isn’t much to say about him from a numbers perspective, but then there rarely is – good junior goaltenders routinely implode at the professional level, while middling ones can make surprisingly good professionals.  Team effects make it difficult to objectively examine junior goaltenders.

As a professional, Holtby has been very good.  He split 2009-10 between the ECHL and AHL, posting a 0.917 SV% over 23 games in the latter league.  For the sake of context, Hershey’s other two regular goaltenders were Neuvirth and journeyman AHL’er Jason Bacashihua; the former posted an 0.919 SV% while the latter managed a 0.911 SV%.  That puts Holtby in some pretty good company as a rookie pro.

Holtby’s been lights-out in 2010-11.  His backup in Hershey for much of the year has been Dany Sabourin, a former NHL’er and proven commodity in the AHL.  Despite similar records, Holtby’s 0.930 SV% dwarfs the 0.908 SV% number posted by Sabourin.

I think Washington may have a problem: they have three very good, very young goaltenders, and it isn’t at all clear which of the three is the best today, let alone which one will have the best career.  It certainly might represent an opportunity for some team to acquire a new ‘goalie of the future’ at this summer’s draft.