The future of Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals has been a long-running story all season. Entering the final year of his contract with the team, it became more and more clear as the season wore on that the 2019-20 season would most likely be his last in Washington. According to general manager Brian MacLellan, however, talk of Holtby's pending departure may be a bit premature.
“It’s still to be decided," MacLellan said Sunday when asked about a possible return for Holtby. "I think it’s going to be difficult but sometimes opportunities come up that you don’t expect and I think we’d like to play it out and see what happens.”
When the Caps selected goalie Ilya Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 draft, it was with the intention that he would one day be the team's starter. After an impressive rookie season in which he managed a 16-6-2 record with a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA, it appeared that the time had finally come for him to take over the crease next season as the team's No. 1.
But Samsonov was injured coming into the July training camp and did not travel with the team to Toronto for the postseason. One has to wonder if that is what MacLellan is referring to when talking about unexpected opportunities for Holtby.
Holtby, 30, may have had an opportunity to play his way into another contract with Washington in the 2020 postseason with the crease to himself, but, if we're being honest, a 2-5-1 record with a .906 save percentage probably is not good enough to get that done.
All the reasons that made it likely that the 2019-20 season would be Holtby's last with the Caps remain true. The team cannot afford to pay Holtby as much as he would get on the open market, probably not even close to it. Heck, a flat salary cap means the team probably couldn't even afford him at his current cap hit of $6.1 million. It doesn't make sense for the team to give Holtby a long-term deal with his replacement already on the roster, it doesn't make sense for Holtby to take a short-term deal as he is already in his 30s and such a deal will undoubtedly cost him his last shot at a big contract (his numbers are not going to improve the further he gets into his 30s) and the team cannot offer Holtby any protection against the expansion draft because it would have to come at the expense of Samsonov.
The only wild card here is Samsonov's health. We don't know much about the severity of Samsonov's upper-body injury, but MacLellan's latest update seems to indicate the team is not concerned this could be a long-term issue. If his health going forward is an issue, that may leave an opening for Holtby. The team is going to need a veteran backup to play with Samsonov anyway, but if Samsonov's future is suddenly uncertain, then the team will need more than just a No. 2 to play in tandem with him next season.
If Samsonov is indeed on track to be healthy by training camp, however, it is hard to see how keeping Holtby makes sense, especially for the player, despite MacLellan's unwillingness to shut the door on an extension. Holtby would have to accept being the No. 2 going forward, less money and a shorter term than he could get on the open market and no expansion draft protection. That's a lot to ask.