With the hope for a 2012-2013 NHL season seemingly slipping away by the day, it is important for current NHL players to sign where they can and find a place to call home for...well, who knows how long.
One player who has found such a home is Washington Capitals goaltender, Braden Holtby.
Holtby, the unsung playoff hero for the Caps last spring, was assigned to the Caps AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, literally hours before the lockout went into effect (Washington Post).
Without question, being back in Hershey cannot be what Holtby envisioned after his tremendous playoff performance. He was supposed to be in D.C. as the starting goalie of the Capitals—the future of the organization.
Instead, Holtby is back in Hershey and playing for the Bears. It has to feel familiar. After all, Holtby played in 70 games for the Bears from 2010-2012. During his time there, Holtby had a .913 save percentage and a 2.45 goals-against average.
Those are decent numbers, but we all saw better form from Holtby during the 2012 playoffs.
By all indications, Holtby was absolutely ready to compete regularly at the next level. The lockout, which is beginning to look like a true season-killer, is not going to allow that to happen.
But is being sent back to Hershey while the lockout is in effect really a step back for Braden Holtby—or is it a really great opportunity for Holtby to continue to make progress and fine-tune his game?
In reality, being assigned to Hershey is not such a bad thing at all for Holtby. It will help him more than hurt him.
Here are a few reasons why.
He Will Gain Experience With Adam Oates And The Rest Of The Coaching Staff
Braden Holtby is not the only member of the Caps who will spend time in Hershey this year, as the lockout drags on and on.
New head coach Adam Oates, and pretty much the rest of the Caps coaching staff, will also be there. Oates was sent to Hershey to share coaching duties with current Bears' coach Mark French, and Oates' coaching staff has come along for the ride (Washington Post).
In the long run, this should help Braden Holtby considerably.
He gets to continue to work with goaltending coaches Dave Prior and Olaf Kolzig, the two men who will help shape his progress back in DC when the NHL eventually resumes business.
But beyond that, Holtby will get to spend some quality time with Adam Oates, and will get to see, first-hand what sort of system Oates is planning on installing in Washington. He'll see the new offensive philosophy, as well as seeing how Oates plans on setting up his defense.
This should give Braden Holtby a great opportunity to gain some understanding of what sort of pressure he might face from game to game, what sort of forechecking system Oates plans on using, what sorts of formations might be utilized, what sort of emphasis Oates is going to place on shot-blocking, whether Oates will demand a more punishing and physical style of play, and so forth.
It won't be a perfect preview ,as the talent level in Hershey is a significant notch below what Holtby will experience in Washington.
Nevertheless, Holtby will get to see Oates' coaching philosophy actually being played out, instead of just learning it theoretically, as most of his teammates will have to do until NHL games are actually played again—whenever that might be.
Truth be told, Holtby is actually pretty lucky to have been assigned to Hershey during the lockout. Instead of being sent to the minor leagues and just having to work with that team's pre-set coaching staff, Holtby gets to spend what might be considerable time with his true coaching staff, gets to learn their philosophy and style and how to put that knowledge to use in actual games.
That can only help Braden Holtby moving forward.
His Family Is With Him In Hershey
They say that "home is where the heart is."
For Braden Holtby, at least for the time being, home is Hershey, Pennsylvania. While that might not be nearly as glamorous as the nation's capital, the good news is that his family—his brand new family—have come with him.
As many know, Holtby's son, Benjamin, was born just days before Holtby took the ice for Game 7 against the Rangers last spring (Washington Post).
In a recent article by Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, Carrera documents some of what Holtby has been going through since he was assigned to Hershey.
Some of what she talks about impacts on Holtby's personal life, and it is easy to see just how important it is to this young man to have his family close to him, as he comes to grips with the fact that he is back in Hershey and not headlining NHL arenas around North America.
As Carrera reported, Holtby remained in Saskatchewan with his fiancee, Brandi Bodnar, and his then-infant son. Holtby—who has always demonstrated intelligence and maturity beyond his mere 23 years—knew there was a lockout looming and saw no need to uproot his new family and move them someplace where he might not settle for a very long time.
As it turns out, that was a very wise decision by Holtby. Once the lockout was official, and once Holtby was sent to Hershey, Holtby moved his family to Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, which is just down the road from the Bears' home arena, The Giant Center.
The travel schedule for an AHL squad is not as rigorous as that of an NHL club, so Holtby will get to spend plenty of time with his fiancee and now nearly-six-month-old son. Instead of them being a thousand miles away in Canada, or a hundred miles away in D.C., they will be pretty much within arms' reach of him most of the time.
As Braden Holtby comes to terms with the fact that he is back to being a minor-league goaltender instead of becoming an elite NHL goaltender, having his family close by can only help.
He Will Find Out If His Game Is Where It Should Be
It would seem natural to assume that because Braden Holtby stonewalled two of the best offenses in the NHL during the 2012 playoffs, AHL teams will have no realistic chance of success against him.
After all, after thoroughly frustrating the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, what chance do teams like the Lake Erie Monsters or Peoria Rivermen really have against Holtby?
If Holtby's game is where it should be—and if he is really ready to position himself to be counted among the elite goaltenders in the NHL—AHL teams should fare rather poorly against Holtby.
This is where Holtby's AHL stint might actually help him the most. He will find out just where his game is as opposed to where it should be.
Granted, AHL opposition might be somewhat stiffer than usual, as the Caps are not the only team to have sent talent to the AHL. Each NHL team has an AHL affiliate, so the talent pool should be of higher quality than it usually is.
Still, if Holtby is the real deal, and if he is going to take his game to the next level, playing against a hybrid of AHL and NHL talent is probably the best he can hope for right now.
So how is it going so far?
Not too bad, but not great.
In the season opener for Hershey against the Syracuse Crunch, Holtby got the call in net. Holtby stopped 28 of 32 shots, but the Bears lost 4-3 (hersheybears.com). Holtby suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury during that game, and he would not return to the ice for about two weeks.
His next outing was much better, and Holtby looked very much like the brick wall he was during the playoffs.
Against the Albany Devils—who had Adam Henrique on their squad—Holtby stopped all 35 shots thrown at him as he shut out the Devils 3-0 (The Patriot-News via pennlive.com).
This is probably what is to be expected, as Holtby learns a new system, learns the new style of his new head coach, and also learns to adjust to AHL teams that will actually have quite a bit of NHL talent on their rosters.
No, it won't be up to par with true NHL games. But the AHL, for now anyway, can probably be considered NHL Light, or something along those lines.
Whatever the case, Braden Holtby will get to hone his skills against some NHL-level talent.
As long as this lockout stays in place, that is probably the best experience Holtby can get.