It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to realize there was a disconnect, or at the very least a disagreement, in the way Adam Oates wanted Braden Holtby to play this season and the way goaltending coach Olie Kolzig wanted him to play.
“It’s obviously been well documented the changes that we tried,” Holtby said. “Nothing against what the philosophy was, it just didn’t coincide with my personality and my natural instincts.
“The changes led to a lot of second guessing myself and over-thinking things. The moment you start doing that you start to struggle, and when you struggle your confidence goes down a bit.”
After seeing Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist knock the Caps out of the playoffs last spring, Oates decided it was time for the Caps’ goaltenders to try a similar approach as the Swedish netminder, who plays deeper in his crease and relies on his incredible reflexes to take away back-door passes.
So, at the start of training camp, Kolzig worked with Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer, asking them to challenge less and play a more controlled game, slightly deeper in their creases. All three goalies said it was a dramatic shift in the way they had played for most of their careers.
“I mean, goaltending was inconsistent last year, too,” Oates said. “That’s why we made changes. But at the end of the day, I like a lot of things about Holtby’s game, I do. But like everybody, he’s got holes in his game. I need him to be a little more consistent.”
Of the three goalies, Holtby, 24, seemed to struggle the most with the changes. By playing deeper in his crease, shooters were seeing more net and Holtby began allowing long-range goals that deflated his teammates and his confidence.
He lost four of his first six starts and was pulled in another. Holtby rediscovered his game in November, going 8-3-1, but was shaky enough in December and January to allow Grubauer to steal the No. 1 job.
“Obviously, when I wasn’t playing for a while there, that’s when I realized we would take the opportunity at practice to get back to where I wanted to be,” Holtby said.
With the help of Kolzig, Holtby went back to the basics, playing more aggressively and challenging shooters instead of staying deeper in his crease.
“Olie and I have been on the same page since Day One,” Holtby said. ”He’s been keeping me sane through everything. We talk about everything and we realized I had to go back to where my natural instincts led me. We did that as a goalie-goalie coach tandem and I think toward the end of the season it paid off.”
That didn’t stop Capitals general manager George McPhee from acquiring Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline, putting Holtby back into the role of backup. It wasn’t until the season was almost out of reach that Holtby was given meaningful action and he responded by going 3-0-1 with a 1.71 GAA and .947 save percentage in the month of April.
“If anyone, especially in management, feels that someone is going to give us a better chance to win that’s what their job is to do,” Holtby said. “My job is to stop pucks when I’m asked to.
“When the trade happened I looked at it as I didn’t do a good enough job to instill confidence in everyone else that I could do it and that’s one thing I want to get better at.”
As for Oates, he’s not entirely convinced Holtby has returned to the way he played last season, saying he believes some of the changes that were made to his game are still evident.
“I would argue with him on that,” Oates said. “But that’s his feeling, right? And a coach’s job is to get young guys to fight through change. Tiger Woods makes changes. Cal Ripken went through three batting stances in his career. You have to improve, nobody is good enough. I like a lot of things about Holts; he’s a young guy and he has to fix some elements of his game and that’s it.
Oates used Sunday’s season-ending 1-0 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example.
“Watching the tape, there are probably five saves he made because of one of the changes that we made,” Oates said. “He made two saves that I didn’t like -- he made the save, but I think it was the wrong way -- but his reflexes are his gift, his intangibles are his gift and I just want to tap into them a little bit more.
“He’s a young guy and I like the fact that he wants to challenge me, I do. That’s an athlete that will eventually get better because he’s into it. The guys that don’t do that, they’re not really about getting better.”
With Neuvirth now in Buffalo and Halak likely to test free agency, Holtby is expected to battle Grubauer for the starting job next season.
“The lesson I learned this year is how to battle with that adversity,” Holtby said, “and next year will be easier in a way because I’ll be stronger in that aspect.”