Though unable to track down John Carlson in Hershey last weekend I managed to see Braden Holtby start both weekend home games in the Bears’ net. I’d never seen Holtby perform in person, and I was well aware of the mega-buzz he’d been generating the last two hockey seasons, and so I was thrilled at the chance to get to see him perform on successive nights.
The Capitals selected Holtby in the fourth round of the 2008 Entry Draft, 93rd overall. Generally NHL teams don’t find gems in net there, but Capitals’ scouts have scored prime talent deep in drafts in recent years. Holtby sure appears to be another one.
You don’t derive hard and fast conclusions from the observations of but two games, but I thought I’d pass along a few top-level impressions I garnered of Holtby, which are colored and supplemented by conversations I had with Bears’ team officials and media who follow the team closely. The upshot is this: there’s a lot of substance to the buzz — the Caps indeed have yet another bluechip netminding talent in the pipeline.
It’s too early perhaps to tell whether or not Braden Holtby will one day vie for a no. 1 position in net in D.C., but there can be no mistaking his raw physical talent and his heady, beyond-his-years composure as a 20-year-old playing at an All-Star level in the second-best hockey league in the world.
Holtby this week flew to California to compete in the East Coast Hockey League All Star game. His play in 2009-10 has been so strong that many in South Carolina and Hershey agree that he should have competed in both of those leagues’ All Star games this season. Ironically, he’s played fewer games in the ECHL this season, and yet qualified for that league’s honor game. But his numbers in Hershey are beyond gaudy: 13-2-1 in 16 games, with a .938 save percentage and a microscopic 1.74 goals-against. I don’t care if the Bears are a behemoth of a juggernaut this season; those are sick numbers for any goalie, let alone an American League rookie.
- I first noticed Holtby’s physical stature. He’s listed at a modest 6 ’1, 205, but he seems to play a lot bigger than that in net. His statistical numbers would suggest as much.
- Although he credits Marc-Andre Fleury as an inspiration Holtby isn’t your classic butterfly netminder. Indeed, he plays upright a great deal, it seems to me. Perhaps his is a bit of a hybrid style; it sure seems very much his own.
- One of the very first things I noticed about Holtby was how effortlessly he moved as a skater. He’d be first out among Bears on Giant Center’s ice for warmups, and I watched him stride powerfully for a few laps in all the bulk of his gear. He really moved noticeably fast, with great fluidity. He just seemed exceptionally comfortable in all his armor for the task. It was something I haven’t noticed with Capitals’ goaltenders of the present or recent past.
- Holtby moves in noticeably sudden and fast bursts in attacking shooting angles from his starting, upright position. Very quick, very aggressive. He seemed to bounce back up on his skates from his butterfly movements with efficiency, regaining his sense of the threats behind or to his sides with terrific poise. Semyon Varlamov may well exhibit the greatest athleticism of any Capitals’ prospect in net, now or ever, but I think Braden Holtby should also be classified a strong athletic netminder.
- His stickhandling is a real strength. Twice on a single penalty kill last weekend I saw Holtby clear pucks all the way down the ice and on the opposing net. A number of Bears’ staffers commented on this aspect of his game to me.
- Neither of Holtby’s weekend starts required much in the way of brilliance on his part. Saturday night the Bears mauled Wilkes-Barre Scranton 7-2, in which Holtby faced just 22 shots, and on Sunday Syracuse managed just 19 shots in the Bears’ 4-3 victory. I’m eager to see more of him, most particularly with a heavy workload.
- Holtby got his start in hockey playing on a backyard rink built by his father in Saskatchewan, who also played goal — “I always watched my dad when he played goal and I wanted to be just like him.”
- He shares with this blogger a keen appreciation for Jessica Alba.