July 1 did not mark just the start for NHL free agency, it is also the first day of the league year. That means Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are officially on the final year of their contracts with the Capitals. After both players played a significant role in helping the team win its first Stanley Cup in 2018, both will always have a special place in the team’s history. But the question now is whether they will have a part in its future.
“I’ll sit down with Backstrom and Holtby here as the summer progresses, probably in August sometime, and just talk to them both and talk about the situation in the organization and what the possibilities might be going forward,” general manager Brian MacLellan said on a conference call Monday. “All we can do is communicate with both the players and see how it plays itself out.”
After Monday, however, the prospect of re-signing Holtby just got a heck of a lot more difficult.
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, 30, signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Florida Panthers. For you non-math majors out there, that deal comes with a $10 million cap hit. It also comes with a full no-movement clause for the first five years.
That is a big deal and a lot of cap space. It is also bad news for Washington.
With very similar career numbers, Holtby is an obvious comparison to Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky: 2.46 GAA, .919 save percentage, 33 shutouts, two Vezina Trophies
Holtby: 2.47 GAA, .918 save percentage, 35 shutouts, one Vezina Trophy
The playoffs, however, are a different story. Bobrovsky has won only one playoff series in his entire career. Holtby, meanwhile, led the Caps to a Stanley Cup. The level of success both players have had is accurately reflected in their playoff stats.
Bobrovsky: 11-18 record, 3.14 GAA, .902 save percentage, no shutouts
Holtby: 48-41 record, 2.09 GAA, .928 save percentage, seven shutouts, one Stanley Cup
Holtby’s playoff GAA ranks 16th all-time and his save percentage ranks 5th. He is one year younger than Bobrovsky which means he will be the same age, 30, when his contract expires as Bobrovsky is now.
At the very least, Bobrovsky and Holtby are comparable. In fact, MacLellan seemed to indicate he felt Holtby’s resume was the more impressive of the two.
“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”
Holtby has already indicated he would like to stay in Washington, but Bobrovsky’s new deal complicates things by setting the market for a goalie of Holtby’s caliber likely at a price the Caps cannot afford in more ways than one.
First, there is the cap hit. The entire 2019 offseason has been defined by how close the team is to the cap ceiling which led to trading away Matt Niskanen and MacLellan’s admission to giving more term than he would have otherwise to free agents in order to keep their cost low.
Besides Backstrom and Holtby, the only other UFA coming off the books at the end of the 2019-20 season is Radko Gudas. Will that extra $2.345 million of space be enough to re-sign both Backstrom and Holtby? Probably not considering we are talking about a raise of $3.9 million for Holtby alone from $6.1 million to $10 million.
Sure, Holtby could elect to take less than $10 million per year, but how much less? One, two million? Multiply that by seven years, or eight as Washington could sign him for the extra year if he stays, and that would mean he could potentially be leaving $16 million on the table. Holtby has an agent whose job it is to make his client as much money as possible who would no doubt advise Holtby not to make such a deal. There is also the NHLPA to consider which likely would not be pleased about a member walking away from that much money, thus hurting other free agent goalies’ chances of getting what they are worth.
Ultimately, Holtby can choose to sign for less if he wants, but it is naive to believe he will not at least face pressure not to do so.
Second, you have to consider the term. If he re-signs before July 1, 2020, Holtby could sign a maximum eight-year deal which would keep him in Washington until he is 38. Will he still be the same caliber goalie at that point as he is now?
Starting goalies do not grow on trees and yes, a 38-year-old Holtby may still be better than a number of other starters in the NHL, but he may not. Also, even if you commit to him long-term you do so at the expense of the highly touted prospect Ilya Samsonov.
Samsonov is widely considered the team’s top prospect and is expected to one day replace Holtby as the starter. You do not sign Holtby for eight years if that remains the plan.
And then there’s Seattle.
The Seattle expansion draft will take place in June 2021. Bobrovsky has a no-movement clause through the 2023-24 season which guarantees that Florida must protect him from the draft. That would be a problem for Washington.
Teams can only protect one goalie in the expansion draft meaning if you are dreaming of a Holtby-Samsonov goalie tandem, it’s not going to happen. Keeping both means leaving one exposed to Seattle and both would be prime targets, one as a young and budding starter while the other is an established veteran. If Holtby wants to sign in Washington long-term, it will be because he wants to stay in Washington and thus it is not unreasonable to think he will want a no-movement clause to ensure he is not taken by Seattle. If you give him one, however, that would mean the end of Samsonov’s time with the organization. MacLellan is not going to keep Samsonov around just so he can split time with Holtby and get plucked by Seattle.
The bottom line is that you do not sign Holtby for a further eight years without already deciding to move on from Samsonov. If the team has any faith at all in the young netminder as a starter, that is not a deal you can afford to make with Holtby.
Even if MacLellan was leaning towards moving Samsonov in favor of Holtby, it may not make financial sense to do so if Holtby pushes for anything close to fair value based on what Bobrovsky's contract.
Bobrovsky’s new deal can essentially serve as a template for what Holtby will be worth next offseason. This begs the question: Is it worth committing that much cap room and that much term to a 30-year-old goalie even if it means moving on from the team’s top prospect? If the answer is no, then this will likely be Holtby’s last season manning the crease in Washington.
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