Braden Holtby brings a new definition to the term ‘hybrid.’
Just as individual as the personalities of the men behind the mask, each goaltender’s style varies. The most common definitions are ‘stand-up style’ and ‘butterfly’ with ‘hybrid’ being a combination of the two. In Holtby’s case, ‘hybrid’ might as well define the combination of goaltender and defenceman.
The 19-year-old starting goalie of the Saskatoon Blades blends a solid mix of game-saving acrobatics with the puck-handling skills of a defenceman. It’s for that reason players like Lethbridge’s Zach Boychuk, Saskatoon’s first-round opponent, need to find alternatives when entering the Blades’ zone.
“It’s pretty tough to get a good dump-in against him,” Boychuk said. “You try to rim it and he knocks it down out of the air with either his stick or his pad and you try to chip it in softly and he’ll go skate and get it. He’s a little bit like (Martin) Brodeur and (Marty) Turco out there.”
Holtby’s penchant for playing the puck becomes less surprising when learning his past. His father, Greg, was also a goaltender in the early 1980s, ironically also playing for the Blades. But instead of influencing his son to follow in his footsteps, the elder Holtby planned on raising a forward.
Braden jokingly offered this explanation: “As you know, goaltending equipment isn’t cheap (laughs).”
But it was too late. Like father, like son, the goaltending bug had bitten Braden. Holtby grew up idolizing Patrick Roy and, to a lesser extent, Brodeur. While watching Roy and Brodeur, Holtby recognized the advantage a goaltender can gain by playing the puck, thus deciding to implement the strategy into his game.
Holtby’s infatuation with the position led him to Ken Dryden’s book: The Game. The Blades’ starter felt an instant connection while reading the passage, thus understanding why his father would have preferred Braden being a forward.
“It’s kind of a love-hate relationship as a goalie,” Holtby said. “It’s really hard but (Dryden) could never give it up. It’s hard to get too high or too low with it because you’re too easily the goat to too easily the hero.”
It’s for those reasons his father serves as both a mentor and a coach.
“He knows me better than anyone and he knows when I’m getting too high or too low,” said Holtby, who speaks with his father after every game. “When I’m doing things wrong he doesn’t tell me in a mean way — he’s actually not as much of a critic as I am to myself. But he’s not afraid to tell me when he sees something that’s out of my characteristics.”
Perhaps buoyed by his father’s advice, Holtby emerged as one of the Western Hockey League’s top goaltenders this season. Holtby was named the Eastern Conference’s goaltender of the year and will vie for the league’s top goaltender award with Tri-City’s Chet Pickard.
Holtby has undoubtedly been his team’s brightest star in a season where they weren’t picked to contend. As is often the case, a good goaltender can make a good team great and Holtby has been no exception.
“He gives us an opportunity to win every night,” Saskatoon head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken said. “He’s a calming influence back there and the guys know they can rely on him in tough situations.”
The Blades have indeed relied on Holtby in the playoffs, the first such time he has played post-season hockey. Holtby has the unenviable task of shutting down the highly-talented Lethbridge Hurricanes offence, particularly Boychuk. The Hurricanes forward has the edge of late after scoring both goals in Lethbridge’s 2-1 win Wednesday to even the series at two games each.
Boychuk has accounted for five of the Hurricanes’ nine goals through the first four games. The Hurricanes forward considers himself fortunate to beat Holtby, after countless battles in minor hockey.
“He usually doesn’t give up the first shot and usually he battles for that rebound too,” Boychuk said. “He’s one of the flashiest goaltenders that I’ve ever seen but he does it in good style. I remember playing against him when I was 10-years-old and he was one of the best goalies back then too.”
“He’s a great goalie and he’s held us in so many games this year and this whole playoff series he’s been unbelievable,” Blades forward Adam Chorneyko added.
After two rebuilding, non-playoff years in his first two seasons in the league, Holtby is aware this could be his final season in junior. He’s honest, however, when talking about the value of the learning lessons gained through two rough seasons.
“I wouldn’t give these past two years before this for anything,” he said. “It’s better to learn from your mistakes than to have success all the way. It’s a lot harder but you come out a better person.”
Those character-building experiences have given Holtby the ability to handle pressure. And as a goaltender, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Just that pressure that you’re going to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “It’s just the mindset of being a goaltender that you want to be the best.”
And in Holtby’s case, being the best means a combination of a shutdown goaltender and a puck-moving defenceman.