Holtby vs Holtby: A Detailed Analysis
Of all the goaltending stories to emerge from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Braden Holtby’s struggles for the Washington Capitals was likely the most unexpected.
Holtby followed his 2015-16 Vezina Trophy-winning season with a strong 2016-17 regular season campaign, and earned another Vezina finalist nod. Heading into the Playoffs with their Presidents Trophy, goaltending seemed to be the least of the Capitals’ worries.
However, by the time Game 5 of the Caps’ second round series against Pittsburgh rolled around, the Penguins had taken 3 of the first 4 games – and “What’s wrong with Braden Holtby?” had become a familiar media question.
Carl Hagelin’s opening goal didn’t do much to alleviate concerns for Caps fans.
Early in the third period, following a game-tying goal by Niklas Backstrom, Holtby’s save on Nick Bonino’s rush seemed to ease everyone’s minds.
Washington would go on to win Game 5 by a 4-2 final score, following that up with a 5-2 victory in Game 6 as well, before ultimately disappointing the home crowd with a 2-0 Game 7 loss.
After Holtby’s save on Bonino, his perceived struggles became less of a dominant talking point for the remainder of the series – but ironically enough, a significant factor in Holtby’s struggles is more visible during his save on Bonino than it is on Hagelin’s goal.
A picture says a thousand words, so here’s the picture.
This is the goalcam view as Bonino’s shot hits Holtby’s glove.
Holtby’s weight is clearly on his opposite (right) pad. His body is curved so that his waist is moving away from the puck. His right shoulder is slightly higher than his left.
From above, it’s important to note a few things. First, Holtby reads this play well. When Bonino shoots, Holtby is positioned square to the shot. Some might prefer that he establish more depth, but he’s certainly in a strong enough position to make this save. His field vision seems focused on the release, and his body and hands cover the widest margin of the shot’s path.
From here, though, his troubles start. His weight begins to shift to his right pad, his left shoulder moves slightly back, and his glove travels backward.
By the time the puck hits his glove, his left shoulder is rotated back, his weight has shifted right, and his glove has moved back behind the hashmark of the left crease. The shot deflects off of his glove to his left, as his body moves to the right.
His rightward momentum continues after he makes the save, forcing him to perform a full butterfly recovery with his right skate starting nearly on the crease line. His chest is only just beginning to turn toward the rebound.
Holtby’s glove motion also directly contributes to his inability to catch the puck, even though he is clearly “watching” it to his hand with his eyes. As his glove retreats and he reaches it down, the outer edge bumps into the top of his left pad, causing his glove to slightly bounce upward. The impact also pushes against the finger section, causing the glove to partially close just as the shot arrives.
Instead of entering his glove, the puck deflects off of the outer edge, creating what could have been a dangerous rebound. Luckily for the Caps, there isn’t any offensive threat coming from Holtby’s left.
Ironically, Hagelin’s goal shows Holtby with more efficient body and hand action, though it’s still less than optimal. He also gets really unlucky.
Yes, that’s the puck hitting the edge of his glove, deforming the perimeter of the pocket, and plowing right on past into the net. Many NHL goaltenders opt to leave out any internal plastic reinforcement for this part of the trapper, looking for flexibility to allow a wider opening and surface area presentation. This would be the downside of that type of construction.
Comparing body positions, Holtby actually shows better structure on Hagelin’s goal:
than he does on the Bonino save:
On Hagelin’s goal, a small backward movement of Holtby’s glove results in the puck impacting the outer edge of the pocket rather than cleanly entering his glove where he thinks it will. For the save he makes on Bonino, there is a more dramatic motion of his body away from the shot line, which pulls his glove further back against his pad and prevents him from catching the puck cleanly.
This inconsistency in his body position is significant for two main reasons. The most obvious is that it leads to inconsistent results. However, it’s also useful as a window into Holtby’s “tracking.”
The word “tracking” gets thrown around often in goalie commentary. At its most comprehensive, “tracking” refers to the actions by which a goaltender uses his visual connection to the puck to most efficiently orient his hands and body into position to make a save. Many coaching philosophies, including Lyle Mast’s Head Trajectory (which InGoal has profiled previously), seek to create a foundation for optimal tracking.
It’s not a coincidence that Holtby’s head is clearly angled down toward the puck on the Bonino save. In fact, the leftward and downward rotation of his head contributes to the backward rotation of his left shoulder and glove. On Hagelin’s goal, Holtby’s head doesn’t rotate, and his shoulder and glove stays more steady. Ironically, Hagelin’s shot eludes him, while his less efficient motions in reaction to Bonino’s shot result in a dramatic and important save.
This is not as surprising as it sounds, actually. Here’s Holtby making a save on Jordan Eberle in November of 2015.
The same body curve away from his glove is there. The difference is that he swoops his glove down into the path of the puck and catches it cleanly.
A lot of great athletes develop habits that work for them, and are able to succeed because they are naturally gifted and they work hard to “groove” their own personal technique. However, when they reach the highest levels of competition, those personal idiosyncrasies aren’t always reliable.
Here, a golf analogy is useful.
The great Nick Faldo was a pretty successful golfer into the 1980’s. He had won some tournaments, and made a couple of European Ryder Cup teams. That wasn’t enough for the ultra competitive Faldo, though. After falling short at a couple of major championships, he decided to overhaul his golf swing to a more efficient version, one that he thought would hold up better under pressure. He and his instructor, David Leadbetter, spent three years undoing what he had spent his lifetime learning, and rebuilding Faldo’s swing from its foundation. From about 1984 through 1987, Faldo had much less success, and critics in the golf world thought that he had ruined his career. He proved them wrong when, beginning in 1987, his hard work paid off. From that point on, Faldo won 3 Masters Tournaments, 3 Open Championships, and a slew of professional events. He also became the most successful Ryder Cup player in European history. Not satisfied with being a successful professional golfer, Faldo instead turned himself into one of the elite players in the history of the sport.
Clearly, a goalie isn’t a golfer. Braden Holtby can’t break down his game and start from scratch without hurting his team. He can and does, though, work hard to improve his game, to make it more efficient and more consistent.
Holtby’s work with Mitch Korn over the last two seasons has focused on increasing his efficiency, so that his nightly performance wasn’t reliant on things like “instinct” and “timing.” Looking at his glove action against Hagelin and Bonino, it’s clearly less dramatic. It’s not unreasonable to watch these plays and come to the conclusion that Holtby has conflicting instincts at work, as he tries to transition from what worked well to what will work better.
There’s a give and take to every adjustment, though, and these transitions aren’t always easy. Holtby’s earlier glove action, when timed correctly as it was in 2015 against Eberle, allowed him to overcome his suboptimal body rotation. In other words, when his left shoulder rotated back and his torso bent away from the puck, his sweeping hand action returned his glove into the necessary position to catch the puck. With a quieter glove action, his hand motion doesn’t compensate for his shoulder rotation, and the puck caroms off.
Old habits are hard to break, even for the most gifted athletes in the world. It’s not unreasonable to suggest, reviewing these plays, that Holtby is a goalie in the midst of a difficult transition, working hard to turn new techniques into instincts. Capitals fans may have been encouraged by the wrong play here, but they should be encouraged nonetheless. Winning Vezina Trophies is nice, but it’s clear that Braden Holtby has loftier goals in mind.