Braden Holtby didn’t need to sign a five-year contract worth $30.5 million to know the responsibilities and pressures that go along with it. To him, those expectations have always been there, whether he’s the seventh highest-paid goalie in the NHL or not.
“I don’t want to prove the numbers, I want to prove that I’m valuable to the organization, that I can help this team win a Cup,” Holtby, 25, said after coming to a hard-fought agreement with the Capitals.
“That’s what my goal has been since I can remember. It’s a challenge I’m very fortunate to have, that I can try to push myself to that limit.”
Holtby’s front-loaded contract pays him $6.5 million next season, $7 million in each of the following two seasons and $5 million in each of the two that follow after that. It also comes with a no movement clause that kicks in two years from now, on July 1, 2017.
The road to Friday’s signing was a long one for both Holtby and the Capitals. After offering Holtby a five-year contract believed to be worth roughly $26.5 million before the June 26 NHL draft, talks between the two sides fell silent, with Caps general manager Brian MacLellan publicly stating he was willing to let an arbitrator decide Holtby’s worth.
At the start of this week both sides submitted their briefs to the arbitrator, with the Caps seeking a one-year, $5.1 million award and Holtby seeking a one-year, $8 million award.
Talks resurfaced when the two sides arrived in Toronto on Wednesday, but when a deal could not be struck before Thursday’s 9 a.m. hearing, they went through the arduous process of hearing four hours of testimony. Holtby provided numbers to suggest he’s worth as much as or more than Sergei Bobrovsky’s $7.425 million salary; the Caps countering that he has not done enough in his career to warrant that compensation.
“There really wasn’t much that happened until three days ago or so,” Holtby said. “It was long. Obviously, it’s a little nerve racking when you want to be part of this group. I’m very relieved to have it over with and now we can focus on the real thing: my job and accomplishing our goal as a team.”
Like most players, Holtby attended Thursday’s hearing and said he learned more about the business side of hockey than he ever knew existed.
“It makes for a couple long days,” he said. “But I’m glad we went through this. It was nice to learn the process and learn a little bit about the business side of our sport and how people work, especially the lawyers on both sides It was very interesting to learn and a life experience moving forward.”
MacLellan said he thought the arbitration hearing gave both sides a better understanding of Holtby’s market value. Holtby agreed.
“I think both of us wanted to reach some common ground,” Holtby said. “I don’t think either of us wanted to be there. I think that was pretty mutual. But the longer you’re in this game and in this business you realize it is a business and you just do your part, do it respectfully, like both sides did, and we ended up working something out.
“When you’re an RFA it’s a bit longer of a process. The big thing is both sides really wanted to get something done and were willing to work toward it. We have it and I’m thrilled to be part of this organization for years to come.”
Holtby led all NHL goalies in games (73) and minutes played (4,247) last season and his 41 wins matched a franchise record set by Olie Kolzig. In parts of five seasons with the Capitals he is 101-54-18 with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage in his first 178 NHL games.
Holtby’s average annual salary of $6.1 million ranks seventh among NHL goaltenders, behind:
Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million)
Sergei Bobrovsky ($7.425 million)
Tuukka Rask ($7 million)
Pekka Rinne ($7 million)
Carey Price ($6.5 million)
Cam Ward ($6.3 million)
Of those six goalies, five have either won a Stanley Cup (Rask, Ward) or won a Vezina Trophy (Lundqvist, Bobrovsky, Rask, Price). Rinne has been a Vezina finalist three times in his career.
MacLellan said Friday he sees Holtby as a “better than average” goaltender, but would not yet classify him as “elite.” Holtby said he’s not sure where he fits into that category.
“I don’t know, I try not to compare myself,” he said. “My goal has always been to just win as many games as possible and work toward that goal of the Stanley Cup and obviously we fell short, so we need to get better, myself and as a group. And I think we’re doing the right things in order to do that. As far as comparing myself to where the league is at with goaltenders, I try not to do that. I just try to focus on my job to win games and accomplish the main goal.”
At 25, MacLellan said Holtby is just touching the surface of his potential and Holtby said his goal is to wring every ounce of talent out of his body. He said his approach has not changed since he was taken by the Capitals in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft, the 93rd selection overall.
Back then, the Capitals had Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth on their goaltending depth chart. They followed by signing Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal in 2011. Ironically, injuries to Vokoun and Neuvirth opened the door for Holtby in the 2012 playoffs, when he led the Capitals to seven-game upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins before falling to the Rangers in Round 2.
Holtby began the following season as the Caps’ No. 1 goalie, but was replaced by late addition Jaroslav Halak near the end of the 2013-14 season.
“I’ve been fairly fortunate to have caught some breaks in order to get the opportunity to prove myself at this level,” Holtby said. “Since Day One I’ve wanted to be the guy in the Washington Capitals net, since I got drafted by them. It doesn’t change. I’m just happy to have the opportunity and I still have to prove it.
“As a goalie you’re only as good as your last game. My job is to keep pushing forward, keep challenging myself and our team and see what we can accomplish.”
Holtby said he does not fall under the category of players who are unmotivated after signing long-term contracts.
“Every year there is adversity you have to go through,” he said. “Last year it was trying to prove yourself for a contract. This year it’s trying to prove the contract you got. Every situation is different.
“In my DNA I like to work, I like to try and get better. I’m not worried about that. The low points of seasons are going to be a little harder to get through because of the added pressure, but that’s just another challenge I’m looking forward to -- to fighting through it and keep improving every single year.”
Holtby said that while he would have accepted a one-year arbitration award, he wanted the security of a long-term deal for his growing family, which has made its home in Old Town Alexandia. He and his wife Brandi, now have two children, 3-year-old Benjamin, and 1-year-old Belle Scarlett.
“The biggest thing for me was just making sure my family was comfortable and with that a longer-term deal always helps,” he said. “With (Ben) in a few years heading into school you want to be part of the community. I think these last few years, both with hockey and personal life, we’re becoming a part of the community and that’s what you want as a family.
“I’m extremely thrilled to have this contract in place. It doesn’t mean you’re here guaranteed for five years. I know I have a lot more to work at to prove this contract, but it is nice to be able to plan a little bit and be a part of the community.”