Holtby still playing at elite level despite Capitals' defensive deficiencies

by 5d ago
Brad Mills / USA TODAY Sports

No team lost more key players in the offseason than the Washington Capitals, and their defense has suffered as a result. In spite of this, netminder Braden Holtby continues to solidify himself as one of the game's elite goaltenders.

On the back end, the Caps lost Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner in free agency, while Nate Schmidt was plucked by Vegas in the expansion draft. To top it off, reliable veteran blue-liner Matt Niskanen has played just five games due to injury.

The salary cap didn't allow the Capitals to retool their blue line in free agency, and they've instead had to rely on unproven defensemen making close to the league minimum.

Unknown commodities such as Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Taylor Chorney, and Aaron Ness have been summoned into action. The ripple effect has forced John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Brooks Orpik to play more minutes than they had in recent years.

As a result, the Capitals have regressed defensively - in a big way:

Stat '16-'17 Caps '17-'18 Caps
SA/G 27.8 (4th-lowest) 32.9 (10th-most)
xGA/60 2.16 (8th-lowest) 2.52 (11th-most)
SCA/60 26.11 (16th-most) 31.02 (3rd-most)
HDCA/60 10.7 (10th-most) 12.94 (2nd-most)

SA/G = Shots against per game
xGA/60 = expected goals against per 60 minutes (at five-on-five)
SCA/60 = scoring chances against per 60 minutes (at five-on-five)
HDCA/60 = high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (at five-on-five)

(Advanced stats courtesy: Corsica, Natural Stat Trick)

For those who prefer a visual, the heat map below provides further evidence that Washington is allowing an abundance of shots from high-danger scoring areas, courtesy of Hockey Viz:

But even with plenty of regression and unfamiliarity in front of him, Holtby still owns a 10-3-0 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. The latter would be his best since his 12-game rookie season in 2010-11.

For comparison's sake, backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer registered a 2.17 goal-against average and a .922 save percentage over the past two seasons with back-to-back Presidents' Trophy-winning teams in front him. This season, however, he's stumbled out of the gate with an ugly 3.70 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage.

It's clear that Grubauer's numbers have taken a huge hit due to the team's defensive struggles, but Holtby's have not.

Holtby continued to prove his worth in the Caps' 2-1 win over the Oilers on Sunday. He was perfect in the shootout, after Washington was outshot 30-19 in the game.

Even on a team with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, it's clear Holtby is the most valuable player.

And sure, he won the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 and the Jennings Trophy in 2016-17, but it still feels as though he doesn't get the respect he deserves.

For the past two years, there would always be a "but" following any description of how good Holtby was: "He's a great goalie, but he has league's best team in front of him."

Now, with Washington's reign as the league's most dominant regular-season team seemingly in the rearview mirror, the hockey world can properly appreciate Holtby as one of the few elite goaltenders in the world.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)