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Signing Braden Holtby to an extension just got a whole lot harder

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Signing Braden Holtby to an extension just got a whole lot harder

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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International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

The Capitals have a problem. 

With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract. 

No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated. 

That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.

Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have. 

But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise. 

According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are. 

This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players. 

To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington. 

These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.   

His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.   

Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left. 

The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave. 

Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty. 

Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it. 

Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close. 

It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February. 

Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game. 

But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends. 

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Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

After news broke of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s four-year suspension by the IIHF for testing positive for cocaine, the Capitals center released a statement Friday accepting the suspension and expressing his regret for the situation 

Said Kuznetsov:

"Recently, the IIHF notified me that, due to a positive test for a banned substance, I would be suspended from international competition for four years. I have made the decision to accept this penalty. Representing my country has always been so close to my heart and something I take so much pride in. Not being able to put that sweater on for four years is very hard to take. I have disappointed so many people that are important to me, including my family, teammates and friends. From the first day I took the ice in D.C., the Washington Capitals organization and our fans have been nothing but great to me and my family. I feel absolutely terrible for letting you down. I realize that the only way I can win you back is to take ownership of my situation and my actions from this point forward."

The question now is what happens next?

Both the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly also released statements on Friday saying that Kuznetsov “has voluntarily sought help through the education and counseling program provided for in the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement and has agreed to a regular testing protocol relating to his involvement with that program.”

In addition, Kuznetsov will meet with commissioner Gary Bettman “to discuss his situation and review his conduct prior to the start of Training Camp preceding the 2019-20 season.”

While the positive test has resulted in a four-year suspension with the IIHF, it is unclear if any such discipline will be levied on Kuznetsov by the NHL.

Said Daly, “Unlike the IIHF, cocaine is not considered a performance-enhancing drug and is therefore not a Prohibited Substance under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  Instead, it is considered a drug of abuse that is tested for and for which intervention, evaluation and mandatory treatment can occur in appropriate cases.”

Daly left the door open for NHL discipline as he concluded, “We intend to reserve further comment on any additional actions that may or may not be taken with respect to today’s announcement (disciplinary or otherwise) pending the completion of the Commissioner’s meeting with Mr. Kuznetsov.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, expressed support for Kuznetsov saying “we are committed to ensuring he has the necessary support required to work through this situation.”

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