Braden Holtby may still be under contract with the Capitals, but as he enters the last year of his deal his future has been a major topic of conversation throughout the offseason.
In 2018, the Columbus Blue Jackets held onto goalie Sergei Bobrovsky as he entered the final year of his contract only to watch him walk in free agency. Now Washington finds itself in a similar situation. Like Bobrovsky, Holtby is one of the top goalies in the league and he will be the same age, 30, when his contract expires as Bobrovsky was this year.
So why not be proactive and trade Holtby now?
There are always teams desperate to upgrade their goaltending and they will pay a pretty penny for one of the top netminders in the league. Plus, the team already has a prospect widely considered to be its future starter in Ilya Samsonov.
Trade Holtby, cash in, turn the reins over to Samsonov and call it a day.
Let’s be clear, the only reason you have this conversation is if you think the team will not be able to keep Holtby next season. I happen to be in that camp. The type of money he will command will be too much for the team to afford, the term he will want will make no sense with Samsonov already in Hershey and there is no way to keep both goalies because the 2021 expansion draft will only allow the team to protect one goalie.
But does that mean the Caps should trade Holtby now? No. Absolutely not.
What is the ultimate goal of the Caps? It is the same goal as every other franchise in the NHL and that is to win the Stanley Cup. This is not the stock market where the goal is to sell high. Every decision a team makes should be done with an eye towards winning the Cup. Yes, sometimes that does mean trading away your top players to recoup value, but only when your team is not in a position to win now.
If the Caps believe they have a chance to win the Cup this year, they have to keep their Vezina-winning staring goalie and cannot rely on an unproven prospect and assume he will be fine despite never playing in a single NHL game before.
But wait... isn't that what happened to the Blue Jackets? They totally got burned for trying to win the Cup!
Yes, but there is a major difference between the two teams. Prior to last season, Columbus had never won a single playoff series. Not ever. It did not spend the 2018 offseason making any dramatic changes to its core, there was no coaching change. It was largely the same team and yet, somehow general manager Jarmo Kekalainen decided it made sense to keep Bobrovsky, and fellow pending UFA Artemi Panarin, for one more run.
Run at what?
Yes, the NHL has shown us time and again that when a team gets into the playoffs, anything can happen, but it is a general manager’s job to assess what his team’s ceiling is. I do not see how anyone could conclude that somehow a team that had never won a series was going to compete for a Stanley Cup. And yet, that is exactly the conclusion Kekalainen reached. Why? Because the team signed Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair in the offseason? Because they had beaten the Caps two games in their playoff series -- two games the Caps dominated by the way -- and then watched Washington go all the way? Two wins were enough to convince them they were a Cup contender?
Sorry, but that's not enough.
If you want to say it was worth it for that franchise to finally get over the hump and win a playoff series to give the fans something to cheer about, that’s a different conversation. In terms of being able to go all the way, it was ludicrous to think the Blue Jackets were contenders.
The Caps are in a completely different situation.
In 2018, just one year ago, Washington was celebrating winning the Stanley Cup. They did so with a core they have largely been able to keep intact. Holtby, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Michal Kempny are all back next season. The team is coming off a disappointing first-round exit, but fatigue from a lengthy playoff run the prior year inarguably was a factor. Also, despite losing key players like Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky this offseason, it is not a stretch to believe the team actually got better -- particularly on defense -- with the additions of Radko Gudas, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and with the re-signing of Carl Hagelin.
No one is going to look at the Caps’ roster and conclude that they are the best team in the league, but it is absolutely reasonable to believe this team could compete for the Cup next season. That certainly seems to be what general manager Brian MacLellan thinks or he would not have made the offseason moves that he did, adding to the roster while still dealing with a serious cap crunch. If that’s the case, how could he think of trading Holtby?
If the goal for this season is to compete for a Stanley Cup and MacLellan believes he has the roster to do it, you cannot trade your starting goalie even if it means losing him for nothing in the offseason.
The future appears bright for Samsonov, but he is 22 and still developing. He has never played an NHL game and you just do not know what he could do if given the chance. This does not mean you can't trust him or that you never give him that chance, it just means you cannot make a championship push on the assumption that he is ready to be an NHL starter.
Plus, how do you sell that to the team? “Hey guys, I totally think we can win this year, but I am going to trade away our top goalie and let Samsonov take over. Fingers crossed he is ready, am I right? Totally not a rebuild though. Now let’s go win the Cup!”
That’s a tough sell.
What would the Blue Jackets have lost last season had they traded away Bobrovsky? They would not have pulled off an improbable upset over Tampa Bay, but ultimately a team that was not going to win the Cup anyway...still would not have won the Cup. For the Caps, trading away Holtby could cost them a legitimate shot at the Cup in 2020.
Granted, this expectation can change. Injuries happen, players underperform, coaches don’t work out or sometimes a team just flat out is not as good as anticipated. If the Caps struggle there may come a point where MacLellan has to acknowledge this team’s window has closed and it is closer to a rebuild than a championship. At that point, the conversation changes and they should absolutely look into moving Holtby. Until then, however, you keep him.
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