The unfortunate reality of a salary cap means that more money for one player means less for another and that is the situation that now presents itself for Braden Holtby after Nicklas Backstrom re-signed with the Capitals for five years, $46 million on Tuesday.
Both Backstrom and Holtby entered the 2019-20 season on the final year of their current contracts without new deals in place. Backstrom’s new deal, however, is the latest impediment in a growing list of reasons why one of the most prolific goalies in franchise history likely will not be back in 2020-21.
"It is tricky," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "Holtby’s a big part of our success as an organization and he’s in the mix with [Alex Ovechkin] and Nick as defining our organization. I think we had an open communication at the beginning of the year and then we were going to address it at the end of the year to see where we’re at with cap and possibilities or not possibilities. So, we’re going to play it out.”
Managing the salary cap this season has been a challenge for both MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden all season. With the campaign just over halfway through, the Caps have needed to use a number of tricks to stay under the cap including playing with seven defensemen, switching backup goalies, cutting the roster down to zero healthy scratches and traveling to a California road trip with no spare defensemen. As the team tries to bank space, the current roster has only 13 forwards (one extra) and six defensemen (no extras).
Washington entered this season right up against the salary cap ceiling and just added an additional $2.5 million of salary for next year.
Yes, the salary cap steadily rises from year to year, but from the 2018-19 season to 2019-20, the cap ceiling rose from $79.5 million to $81.5 million, a jump of only $2 million. Whatever jump in the cap there may be between this season and next, the Caps have likely already spent most if not all of that additional room with Backstrom's new deal.
Re-signing Holtby already looked like a long shot for the Caps after Sergey Bobrovsky signed a seven-year $70 million deal with the Florida Panthers. As both players have similar stats, Bobrovsky essentially became an instant comparable for Holtby’s agent to draw upon in any contract talks. Granted, Bobrovsky’s contract has already proven to be a cautionary tale as he has managed only a .896 save percentage and 3.29 GAA leaving Florida with some serious buyer’s remorse less than a year into the deal. Holtby’s own play this season has likely lowered whatever he may have been expecting on the free-agent market this season with a .899 save percentage and 3.02 GAA.
So yes, a $10 million cap hit is probably unlikely for Holtby at this point and his next cap hit will probably fall somewhere in the middle of that and his current hit of $6.1 million. But Backstrom’s new contract means the Caps will have little money left to spare for him and any other players the team may need to sign.
In addition to Holtby, Radko Gudas is also on the last year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent, while Jonas Siegenthaler, Brendan Leipsic and Travis Boyd will all be RFAs. At the very least, Siegenthaler will get a raise from his current entry-level deal that has a cap hit of only $174,166. Even if the team does not intend to re-sign the other three, MacLellan still would have to replace them all and no one works for free.
“We’re going to have to get creative if we want to accomplish signing Holtby with trades or find ways to create room,” MacLellan said.
While Hotlby’s current numbers may lower his price tag, it also means the team should be less inclined to move salary in order to keep him. Would trading away a player in a salary dump to keep Holtby really make sense given how rookie Ilya Samsonov has played (13-2-1, .925 save percentage, 2.11 GAA)?
Let’s also not forget that Samsonov, Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana will soon be in need of a new contract after the 2020-21 season as well.
The Caps likely had enough money to re-sign one of either Backstrom or Holtby, but not both. By giving a $2.5 million per year raise to Backstrom, that very well could mean that this will be Holtby’s final season in Washington.
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