With the Capitals' 2013-14 season over, the time has come to reflect on the year that was. Throughout the week, I will examine the Capitals by position. Part I will focus on the goaltending.
No Capitals player had a more tumultuous season than Holtby, who wrestled with stylistic changes and underwent a crisis of confidence as he struggled to adapt.
Under a new organizational philosophy, Capitals goaltenders would play deeper in the crease, allowing them more time to read plays and providing more of an opportunity to make post-to-post saves.
It was a significant depature from Holtby's aggressive style and the growing pains were reflected in his overall play. Holtby struggled mightily in December and January, surrendering 38 goals on 293 shots (.870 save percentage) and losing his starting job to rookie Philipp Grubauer.
“Nothing against what the philosophy was with the changes,” Holtby said last week. “I think it just had to do with my personality, my natural instincts that didn’t quite coincide with the changes, and that led to a lot of second-guessing myself and a lot of overthinking things. The moment you start doing that you start to struggle, and once you struggle, obviously your confidence goes down a bit.”
Holtby's season reached its nadir on January 4 when he allowed five goals on 11 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild, the first time since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1973-74 that a team scored five goals on fewer than 12 shots. After the game, the 24-year-old acknowledged that his confidence needed to be rebuilt.
While Grubauer carried the midseason load, Holtby worked with goaltending coach Olie Kolzig to reintroduce some of his natural instincts back into his game. Holtby did not play as often as he would have liked, but earned a combined 8-2-2 record and .927 save percentage in the final three months of the season.
Barring an offseason acquisition, Holtby will likely start next season as the incumbent starter. After a turbulent season, he believes that he will be better for the experience.
“I don’t think it was confidence in myself. I think it was confidence in what I was doing on the ice at the time,” Holtby said. “The lesson I’ve learned this year is how to battle that adversity, and next year will be easier in a way because I’ll be stronger in that aspect.”
Ever since the Montreal Canadiens eliminated the Capitals from the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs due in large part to the impenetrable play of Halak, just the sound of the goaltender's name has been enough to send the fan base into an apoplectic rage.
Fans were able to put those hard feelings aside upon Halak's arrival in early March, hoping that their former nemesis who once stopped 131 of 134 Washington shots in three potential series-clinching games could replicate his late-season magic and lead the Capitals into the playoffs.
That, however, was not the case as Halak was by no means a cure-all. While his numbers were respectable, they did not lead Washington to wins.
Despite playing behind one of the NHL's stingiest defenses in St. Louis, Halak downplayed any adjustment it would take to play behind one of the league's most porous.
In the end, Halak faced roughly 24 even-strength shots per game in his 12 starts for the Capitals, about six more than he faced per appearance with the Blues prior to the trade. His even-strength save percentage took a slight tumble from 92.5 percent in St. Louis to 91.8 percent in Washington, lower than the respective percentages of Holtby and Grubauer.
Of course, there was the awkward situation involving Halak and Oates, who revealed that the 28-year-old was not "100 percent comfortable" starting against his former team earlier this month. The "he said, he said" that resulted seemed to signal the beginning of a messy divorce between Halak and the organization, but the goaltender did not publicly discount the possibility of returning next season.
“We have a really good group of guys over here, I came here to make the playoffs and obviously we didn’t make it,” he said. “I’ve got unfinished business here and I wouldn’t be against coming back so we’ll see what the future brings.”
Even then, it seems unlikely that Halak will re-sign this summer. The Capitals seem prepared to move forward with Holtby and Grubauer, leaving Halak to test the free-agent market for the first time in his career.
Little was expected of Grubauer when he was recalled Nov. 30 to replace an injured Michal Neuvirth, who was scratched from his scheduled start the evening before after stepping on a puck during pregame warmups.
Yet the rookie made the most of his unanticipated opportunity, starting 14 of 20 games between Dec. 8 and Jan. 19 and creating a logjam in the Capitals' crease in the process.
The three-man goaltending bottleneck ultimately proved untenable and Grubauer was returned to the American Hockey League, but not before earning the trust and confidence of his teammates, who lauded the 22-year-old for poise beyond his age and experience.
Grubauer figures to join the Capitals full-time next season, forming a young, reliable and affordable tandem with Holtby that features plenty of upside.
In the latter stages of his Capitals career, Neuvirth became a victim of terrible luck and poor timing.
Neuvirth was never able to replicate the success of his 2010-11 season when he started 45 regular-season games and all nine Stanley Cup playoff games. He started 53 total games for Washington in the two-plus seasons that followed prior to his trade to the Buffalo Sabres on March 5.
Whenever it seemed that Neuvirth was poised to stake his claim to the starting position, unforeseen circumstances derailed his efforts, allowing both Holtby and Grubauer to emerge and overtake him on the depth chart.
The 26-year-old never recovered and did not figure into the Capitals' long-term plans, rendering him expendable. Neuvirth now finds himself with an opportunity to regain his form on a rebuilding team in Buffalo, one that would not have arisen in Washington.
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