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Holtby keeps adapting with latest Capitals goaltending coach

Able to combine fresh concepts, own style

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Braden Holtby is in his sixth full NHL season and on his fifth goaltending coach with the Washington Capitals, so adjusting to another voice, Scott Murray, is nothing new.

Murray took over this season for Mitch Korn, who moved into a part-time position as the director of goaltending after working with Holtby directly for three seasons. The steady coaching changes may have even benefited Holtby, who has learned to welcome new ideas without losing his grip on the foundation that helped him win the Vezina Trophy in 2016. 

"I think it's something that has really helped me," Holtby said. "They've all had a different view on things and it's kind of fortunate because you can take things out of different mindsets and Mitch and Scotty have put it all together." 


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Holtby, 28, began his pro career under the tutelage of Dave Prior, who played a role in the Capitals drafting him in the fourth round (No. 93) of the 2008 NHL Draft and is the goaltending coach for the Vegas Golden Knights. Holtby also worked with Arturs Irbe and Olaf Kolzig before Korn took over as Washington's goaltending coach in 2014-15.

It's been an easy transition to Murray, partly because Korn and the Capitals brought Murray up from the American Hockey League to do the job for one week each of the first four months of last season, including time on the road; partly because the message is similar; and partly because Holtby has learned how to balance new concepts with his personal staples.

"You never want to change your foundation of who you are as a goalie," Holtby said.

For Holtby, that foundation includes maintaining a cerebral approach that relies more on reading the game, anticipating plays and being active. He's worked to improve his efficiency, tighten up his movements and close holes, especially with Korn in 2014-15, but is wary of becoming too rigid in his techniques or too passive in his tactics.

Don't confuse that with Holtby being unwilling to change, however. 

Holtby flew to Kelowna, British Columbia, in late August to meet with Murray to learn some new movement biomechanics and tracking philosophies from yet another goaltending voice. Some of those ideas have already become part of Holtby's approach, some remain a work in progress and others remain not utilized for fear they'd take away from some of the anticipatory and play-reading skills he feels are keys to his success.

"That's how you improve is you find certain things to work on," Holtby said. "You are honest with yourself about what areas you can get better at, and what areas you are doing well at and you don't want to change.

"That's a good way to do it because it allows freedom for me to work on things and almost like it's a partnership where I can feel the changes and the goalie coach can see it more and tell me what they are seeing in certain things, be a person to reflect on my game with more than strictly just a technical coach. It's more personal at this level."

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Murray, who spent the past four seasons as the Capitals goalie coach in the AHL, understands the importance of building that personal relationship and trust, and the need to be mindful of individual staples when instituting new ideas. But he also knows he has a pupil who is good at absorbing new concepts without becoming consumed by them. 

"[I'm] working with a guy that understands himself so well and what his strengths are, and also what his limitations are, and the fact he can internalize information and not let it take over his foundation," Murray said. "He always sticks true to his foundation, even if there is something he is trying to implement, he doesn't lose what he has already built in that process. He does a really good job at internalizing information, understanding where it fits and not getting consumed by new ideas to the point it takes over his thought process.

"It allows him to not lose his effectiveness in the present while still building for the future."

That isn't always the case when making changes. For a lot of goalies, the repetition that is part of learning a new technique in practice can lead to overusing it in games. Doing a new move over and over can make it a default, which is sometimes a bad thing. 

Holtby, who is 4-3-0 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .913 save percentage this season, has managed to avoid that, not losing sight of his strengths while still being aware of the need to stay on top of fine details and daily habits. 

Korn once compared making changes during the season to racing in the Indy 500, saying you can change tires but not the motor, but praised Holtby for being able to make significant style changes in 2014-15. During that season, Holtby worked hard to make sure he didn't get opened up or spread out in his movements and saves, with Korn stressing the importance of keeping his limbs tight without feeling robotic.

"He does a really good job always having the big picture in sight," Murray said. "The small details don't take over the big picture, they add to the big picture." 

It's a big picture that includes elements from all five of Holtby's goalie coaches in the NHL and junior coach John Stevenson, who remains a part of his life and game. But Holtby continues to see himself when he looks at the center of that picture, and that's an important part of his ongoing evolution.  

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