If you make it to the Verizon Center early enough, you may get a chance to witness one of the biggest upsides to Braden Holtby’s game. Before anyone steps out onto the ice, before the lights are even turned all the way up, and certainly before he has even put his equipment on, Holtby begins his pre-game routine. It can be lengthy, but it’s just one part of his mental game that gives him such upside.
Playing goalie can be tough on the body and even tougher on the mind. Holtby attempts to counter that with a psychological tool known as visualization. Visualization is when a player sees himself performing on ice and visualizes what it will take to succeed and win in the net. It is a powerful tool to build confidence, focus and calm the nerves heading into game. Golfers do it when they look where they want their shot to go and see it going there before they hit the ball; basketball players do it before free throws, when they see the ball go into the net.
In Holtby’s case, it adds another level to his game, building on his physical attributes and his overall play. Just from looking at his body of work and seeing him between the pipes, it is clear he has the “stuff” to make it as a netminder in the NHL.
But does he have the mental ability? How many times have we seen goalies who struggled with the “yips” when they make it to the NHL?
We saw it not that long ago with Justin Pogge of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a 2009 National Post Article, Leafs GM Brian Burke described what makes up a good goalie in the NHL:
“There are four sides to the box that makes up a starting goaltender in the [NHL]. The first three sides are size, athletic ability and competitive spirit … The fourth side dictates whether you can be a starter and that’s mental. Can you handle the pressure? Can you carry a team on your back? Can you not allow a soft goal in the third period? That’s where most goalies fail.”
Pogge inevitably failed, and suddenly a promising netminder was not heard from again. What Holtby has going for him is that he already knows how to conquer that hurdle and how to make sure he has the fourth side. While he may not see it, Holtby’s ability to reel in his emotions and control his mental game allows him to build on his best hockey skill, his puck handling.
Bruce Boudreau has praised it, the media has asked about it, and fans have held the breath when it happens — “it” is, of course, Holtby’s ability to handle the puck out of the net. While Boudreau has said Holtby gets a bit too “cocky” with his puck handling — and I have nearly spit my soda three seats out of the press box when he fails at it — his stick handling gives him an “x-factor” that many goalies do not have. When a goalie leaves the net to handle the puck they are essentially playing roulette, and sometimes they lose. In my opinion, it is his mental stability that allows him to surpass that hurdle and move on when he does turn the puck over or play it incorrectly. His mental stability is his best asset in that situation, allowing him to control his emotions and move on. Goalies need a short memory and it seems as if Holtby has been able to develop one.
While the mental side of Holtby’s game has truly helped him succeed during his time with the Caps this season, it is also where he has the greatest room for improvement, something he has acknowledged. During a conference call on Monday, Holtby talked about how he has tried to work his mental game even more. In the past, Holtby said if he missed anything in his pre-game ritual, it would psych him out: “One of the things I struggled with for a while [was] if I didn’t do something right it would effect me [in the game].” He followed up by saying he now wanted to try to just go through his warmup with ease and be more relaxed.
We all saw how his revised mental game made him even better in Sunday’s game against Chicago. The game was far from Holtby’s best peformance, but he was still able to make several key stops, including a one-on-one right in front of the cage late in the third period. In the past we have seen some soft goals given up by Holtby in pressure situations when he struggles, but not Sunday. He gave his team a chance to win and being able to pull that off when you are not at your best is a tough mental challenge.
Winning when not at his best is what sets this Holtby call up above his last one over a month ago. Though I give him a lot of grief over it, Adam Vingan of Kings of Leonsis was right when he said Holtby didn’t look NHL-ready after a shootout loss against the New York Rangers in January. It was clear he put a lot of pressure on himself, and it seemed to buckle underneath it, as the Rangers deked him out with moves he stopped earlier in the game. His mental game was clearly not there.
That all changed against Tampa Bay at the beginning of March though. The Caps went to a shootout, and it’s fair to say a large part of Washington braced itself, remembering what had happened approximately a month earlier with the Rangers. Instead of folding under the pressure, Holtby looked confident and won. It was at that point he looked ready for NHL responsibility.
As it stands right now, Holtby looks like the true goalie of the future. To harken back to Burke, Holtby has the four pillars of a goalie. He has the size, athletic ability, he is extremely competitive and he seems to have his mental game in check. If anyone was questioning whether he can cut it in the NHL, they just need to take a look at his body of work from last week to change their mind. Holtby was named the First Star of the NHL for that week’s performance, but more importantly, he may have established himself as the No. 1 goalie of the future for Washington. It may not be this year, it may not even be next year, but I bet you Holtby will be the guy. You can hold me to it.