Photo credit: Elsa

Philipp Grubauer has played a little over five games of NHL hockey this season, and he’s been spectacular. Sporting a .940 save percentage, Grubi has been relied on to field a lot of pucks– 184 to be precise. Meanwhile, as Braden Holtby has struggled all December, there’s an understandable tendency to rank Grubauer above Holtby and dub him the team’s number-one goalie.

This would be unwise. In just six games of hockey, a .940 tell us very little. And in just six games of hockey, even the best goaltender in the world can look like a bum.

And yet, this is what we’ve been seeing in our comments:

Marc: Sell Hole-by now at the highest price

James: Holtby looking like [fecal expletive] the last 4 starts

John: Holtby is horrendous all of a sudden. Time to go with Grubauer and Neuvy as backup. Trade Holtby.

Mike: Holtby is plying like crap. No two ways about it. I think he knows he is not on Team Canada and that has screwed with his head.

Braden LOLtby“: [Ed. note: I don’t think that’s his real name.] holtby sucks but everyone always defends him

JoshHoltby is struggling. It’s not about him having a bad game here or there, he’s starting to string together bad ones and it’s worrying me. Hope he can get back to his usual self soon.

MyanOn a side note, Holtby looks shaky.

It’s indisputable that Braden Holtby has played poorly in the last couple weeks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an above-average goalie, which we’re increasingly certain he is. On the other hand, Grubauer’s great performance through six games– while fantastic– is not necessarily indicative of him being a great goaltender in the long run.

The problem is that six games is just way too small of a sample to give us any perspective into the goalie’s skill. It’s like we’re ants crawling around the rim of a chandelier. We see so little of it that we can’t even tell we’re going in circles.

That’s how, through six games, Grubauer seems like a Vezina winner and Braden Holtby seems like a buyout victim. But that doesn’t mean either is actually the case. You could find streaks like that in any goalie’s career.

For the record, here are Braden’s and Philip’s save percentages and the shots they’ve faced in their last six games:

Player Sv% L6 SA L6
Holtby .863 146
Grubauer .940 184

That may look damning for Braden, but only until we account for the crazy amount of volatility in a goalie’s save percentage. Even though 150-200 shots sounds like a lot, there’s a whole lot of noise in there.

Here’s Holtby’s entire career in six-game bursts, with a green line to identify beyond-Vezina-level goaltending at .940 and a red line for anything under .890.

chart_1 (1)

It’s up and down. Holtby spends much of his time nearer the green than the red. Though we have to admit that what’s happening right now might be one of his worst streaks ever.

For comparison’s sake, let’s think of a good goalie with a reputation of consistency. I chose Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. He’s got the same career save percentage as Holtby (.920), but with way more shots faced (15,010) over almost a decade of NHL action.

chart_2 (1)

Again, a whole lot of up and down, with a bunch of spikes below that red line.

That tells us that even a consensus all-star goalie can and will play poorly sometimes. Braden Holtby’s bad month therefore signifies very little. It doesn’t mean he’s not the franchise goalie, and it doesn’t mean he won’t turn it around imminently. Because all goalies are streaky– that’s just the nature of the game.

Here’s how Holtby’s and Lundqvist’s save percentages in those tiny little 6-game samples break down.


chart_4 (2)

They cluster around .910 to .930– where the difference between an average goalie and a great one is determined.

And though Lundqvist has played many more games, he and Holtby have spent similar portions of their careers in the extremes:

Player % Above .940 % Below .890
Holtby 17.9% 13%
Lundqvist 17.4% 11.5%

Holtby has a slightly larger standard deviation overall, and he’s toiled slightly longer below the red line, but not by much.

We should look forward to Philipp Grubauer’s NHL career. Scouting reports treat him kindly, and he’s done pretty well in Hershey, but we have no justification for ranking him above Braden Holtby. Not until he gets some more reps at least.

In the meantime, let’s hope Holtby’s long December ends soon.

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  • Mark

    This post rocked. That is all…

  • Andrew Walker

    Thank you for this. I think a really healthy dose of realism and reliance on statistics is important, and is something that a lot of hockey fans miss when caught up in the emotion of their last few disappointments.

    I agree that Grubauer might well have a fine future with this team, but he’s going to have to have the opportunity to prove that, which means more stats sampled in a relevant situation (i.e. NHL starts). Of course, this brings up the question about how he’s going to get those chances. With Neuvy’s conditioning stint over, it’s likely that he’ll be clamoring to get back on the ice. And then what? What do teams do in this situation? Neuvy is a good goalie, after all, and I’ve always had the distinct impression that he believes he deserves to be a team’s number one goalie.

    Seems to me that with just over half the season left to play, this might be a prime time to give Grubauer some hard starts to see how well he performs and, if he looks like he’s got the potential to be a solid backup, do both ourselves and Neuvirth a favor and trade him to someone that might make him a franchise goalie.


  • Andrew Pang

    Kolzig sucked so bad when he first came into the league as I recall. And Jim Carey won the Vezina. Need I say more about judging goalies too quickly?

  • Michael Reschly
  • Roman Z.

    Ive been pretty vocal about having Holtby take the back seat. He’s strugling, that’s undisputable, but calling him shit or saying he’s trade material is simply wrong. Im in favor of a more moderate approach: play Grubauer, he’s earned it, get some W’s under our belt and let Holtby work his things out until he can step up and deliver.

  • I love the idea of a more even game split between two $1M to $4M goalies. There’s no reason a goalie should ever have to play back to backs. So I’d like to see Holtby get 2 starts a week, and whoever else gets the third– probably Neuvy because he’s got the salary.

  • Shaggy

    Jim “Ace” Carey, anyone?

    In reality, ALL the Caps goalies haven’t been around enough to determine what their future holds. That includes Holtby.

    There isn’t room for three quality tenders, assuming Grubauer plays enough to make a more educated assessment as to his future abilities. Frankly, Holtby has appeared slow side to side and hasn’t played well positionally. He’s better than he has played, but why wouldn’t you play Grubauer now – and give him more reps, as suggested?

    But my point – none of the Caps goalies have played nearly enough to suggest that one has a better chance as a long-term #1 than the other.

  • Heh. I left that out deliberately as not to sound like a pessimist.

  • Between Carey and John Druce, the Caps are a great case study in the reliability of small samples.

  • Andrew Walker

    Well sure, but then how do we find out how well Grubauer might continue to do in the NHL? Why not let him continue his guest backup stint for a few more starts and then let Neuvy continue his duties and keep him visible to any interested parties while we consider our options?

    Even in a more even alternation situation, it’s still pretty clear that he’s not satisfied being anything less than #1.

  • Shaggy

    So … do I understand correctly, play Neuvy simply because he makes more than Grubauer?

  • Graham Dumas

    The problem with that is that Holtby, to me, seems to rely to a large degree on psychology. As in, he’s at his worst when something’s bothering him. Maybe that’s true of most goalies and is a really obvious thing to say–I’m not sure.

    But I do think it’d be a bad idea to let a few poor showings, especially once that were spaced out with long stretches of down-time, get in Holtby’s way.

    Also, although I listed to the game last night on the radio (stupid blackouts on Gamecenter!), J Walls made a big deal about a lot of quality stops made by Holts.

    The last goal was dumb–we all agree on that. But I don’t think it’s an indicator of his overall quality as a netminder.

  • Not the only reason, but it’s one of em. Gotta maintain the assets or else the value is lost. Grubi isn’t an expensive contract, but Neuvy is (comparably). Neuvy’s gotta get reps if he’s gonna be happy or traded for a good return.

    Plus, Neuvy’s got reliable stats (.910) with a sample that’s 10x larger than Grubi’s.

    Plus age, plus Hershey, plus contract negotiations, plus allocating salary for trades and other positions.

  • Graham Dumas


  • I think Grubi should get as many starts up here as possible this year– without shoving off the other two dudes whose salaries are 10x bigger than his.

  • haha the inevitable

  • Graham Dumas

    Yeah, sorry… Can’t stand that band.

  • Andrew Walker

    Agreed. Maybe instead of towing the fallacious line of the “hot hand” (which, sadly seems to be the case right now), the organization should reserve a couple of tough (but not too important) starts for him later on in the season to see how he does against some really good teams.

  • Michael Reschly

    Do you have six-game charts of average/below-average goalies for comparison? Goalies people to complain about (MAF, Luongo)?

  • Totally, but hopefully not at the cost of the team winning.

  • Yeah, I can work on those later and I’ll share them here.

  • Roman Z.

    Ah my fellow russophone! I too have been affected by the blackout, so I relied heavily on live game updates and videos while trying to keep it together at my company’s x-mas party. Holtby does make some spectacular saves almost every game, but I feel like the goals he lets in, mostly from his blocker side, overshadow his saves. Grubauer has simply been more situation- aware and agile than Holts this month.

  • Marky Narc

    It’s quite easy for fans to become enamored by the new guy they don’t know much about. Grubi has played great, but he has also had some very pedestrian moments. The most important thing for him at this point in his career is to get as many minutes as possible. And as much as I love seeing him do that Grubi thing he does in a Caps uniform, he’s ultimately going to get more minutes playing in Hershey for the time being. I wouldn’t want him sitting on the bench as a backup.

    Looking at the other side of the equation – I’m kinda pumped to see what Holtby (and Neuvy!) can do when they get a normal, 25 shots a game workload. Players will always say they want a lot of action and a lot of shots, but I think this is one time we should take that with a grain of salt.

  • Myan

    First, thanks for the shout out, Peter Hassett 🙂

    I agree with you that six games is an incredibly small sample size and I do expect Grubi’s numbers to decrease as that sample grows. I was merely arguing that Holtby has been going through a bit of a rough patch in the last two or so weeks. With Oates’ tendency to “go with the hot hand” I still see Grubi getting more starts than few you’re predicting. Holts is still an above average goalie but Grubi’s great form has to get the coaching staff wondering which goalie we’re going to start every game. It’s a good thing that Grubi is making the most of his chances up here…having options is never a bad thing. I’m not convinced that Holtby is not the man, I’m just not totally convinced that he is the man right now.

  • Graham Dumas

    Just a conspiracy to get me to pay for cable. When my local cable monopoly doesn’t even carry NHLN! We need the Canadian networks down here…

    I dunno, I’m gonna go with the small sample size arg on both counts. Also, I think Holts is a bit rusty and off his game. I don’t think it’s anything more global than that.

  • Andrew Walker

    Well, that’s what the hook is for.

    Failing that, there’s always the gong.

  • Roman Z.

    Trust me, you do NOT need any Canadian network wherever you live, i’ve worked for the biggest one (Bell) for some years and we didn’t even carry ESPN …

  • Adam Fink

    Thank you for this post, Holtby will get it together, just needs a bit of time. However, I do very much look forward to Grubauer getting an extended stay in Washington… which will probably leave Neuvy the odd man out. This is however a year or two down the road most likely

  • mr. ducksworth

    On the topic of psychology, Holtby concerns me a little. Two
    games specifically come to mind, game 7 against the rangers last year and the
    penguins game earlier this year.
    Those were both big games and I think most would agree that he gave up
    soft goals in both of the games and looked a little shaky all around. Maybe
    this is something he can work through or maybe this is a legitimate concern,
    but I think his shakiness affects our psyche and overall play. I also don’t know how much longer he can get a pass on the ‘out of the crease area stickwork which leads to a goal against.’ I understand he is trying to help our breakouts and what not but it
    has led to far too many goals against (the 4th goal against the
    devils last night and a goal in game 3 or 4 of the rangers series last year comes
    to mind, where it was almost a high stick but he was picked off and gave up a
    bad goal. That is a big goal to give up in a playoff game and is totally

    That being said, I think braden is a fine goalie and should
    continue to be our number 1 while we assess grubauer. You have to think neuvy is being shopped around and will be
    moved before the deadline, granted we continue to see promising stuff from
    grubi. There is just no way to
    keep three goalies happy. There
    are not enough games in a week to get them all their fair share of play and you
    would think neuvy is the likely candidate to be moved.

  • William

    Peter Hasset, the voice of reason. Great writeup and a summation of my thoughts reading the comments on this forum. Thanks

  • nicoley-poley

    can someone send this post to oates because #goaliedrama makes me #extremelyanxious #hashtaghashtag

  • Chris Cerullo

    I really don’t understand why people are trying to make goaltending look like an issue for this team when there are countless other things to complain about that are tons more obvious.

  • Stacie A

    We loved watching Grubauer play when he was down in Charleston, so its been extra nice to see him play again. However, we absolutely love Holtby in goal for the Caps. People need to chill and give the guy a chance. He’s had a bad month. Thanks for breaking down the larger picture.

  • CM

    I don’t like a lot of #fancystats (for mathematical reasons, not old school hockey reasons). This is some very nice analysis though. Sports are streaky. The biggest thing we have to worry about is that these bad games go to Holts’ head. That, and if we keep losing games.

  • E-Mar

    Great post to put it all in perspective – could everyone get their panties unquenched and get back to worrying about what matters? – no great D or puck possession?

  • E-Mar

    haha, love me some auto-correct!

  • VeggieTart

    It’s a very limited sample, but Holtby always seems to struggle in October/November/December–something he will have to get over if he wants to be truly elite–and gets really, really hot come February or so. I also wonder if he has something on his mind that’s affecting him; a lot of his play seems to be very mental.

    That said, I’m glad we have a reliable backup we can turn to; I like what I’ve seen from Grubi.