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Braden Holtby Deserves Big Payday from Capitals

You don’t spend big on NHL goaltenders.

That’s the new rule of thumb. Today’s NHL salary cap calculus means finding value where others don’t and turning it into a Cup-level roster. It also means avoiding overpayment on pieces of the roster that don’t need the richest contracts.

For years, there’s never really been a consensus on what constitutes an elite goalie or true market value for them. A great postseason run can turn into a great free agent contract that turns into a great long-term cap headache for the team and GM whose eyes are bigger than their wallets.

It’s easier to imagine success than plan for risk, and that’s the trap into which most bad goalie contracts fall.

No team and no player is immune to the possibility that one good season or playoff run won’t translate into long-term success — at least, the kind of long-term success that can justify a very long, very rich contract extension.

For the Washington Capitals, there is risk in signing goaltender Braden Holtby to a long-term deal. However, if his performance of the last year is anything more closely resembling baseline than aberration, there may be greater risk in not making him part of the long-term picture.

He’s one of three key RFA players on a team that already carries more than its share of big-money contracts. But it seems like the rest of Washington’s offseason plans will now be dictated by what is able to get done with Holtby.

From Craig Custance at ESPN,

[Capitals GM Brian] MacLellan also said that if you’re giving term to a goalie, it’d better be someone you’re convinced is one of the best in league.

“You just have to make sure he’s the real deal,” he said.

Does Holtby fall into that category?

“Yeah,” MacLellan said. “I think so.”

Whether in Washington or elsewhere, Holtby is going to get paid. 

He went save-for-save with Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, finishing out the postseason with a 1.71 / .944 line. Those numbers remain the best among goaltenders to have played two full rounds — better even than Lundqvist, who was on a record-setting pace through the semifinals.

Holtby’s regular season was excellent in its own right — a 2.22 / .923 line in 73 games with a 41-20-10 record, one of the better overall lines in the league despite one of the heaviest workloads (only Jonathan Quick had more 5v5 ice time than Holtby last year). Those are elite goaltending numbers. However, the position carries with it a margin of success that is nearly razor thin.

From Ryan Lambert at Deadspin,

The difference between an elite goaltender and an outright bad one really isn’t that huge. The best goalie in the league is probably going to give you .925, maybe .930 over the course of a season. The worst regular starter is probably going to sit around .900 or .905. That’s two or three extra saves on every 100 shots. Over the course of time, like 82 games, that adds up to a lot of extra goals, but in one game or even a seven-game series, it may not be very much at all.

Your average backup goalie can be had for a million a year, maybe less. The biggest names of the trade command upwards of $6 million per season. That’s quite a disparity of salary for what amounts to not a lot of disparity in save percentage.

That’s the line Washington has to toe in considering a deal for Holtby.

Last year’s run was a long time coming for the 25 year old. Despite the success and workload of last season — and Holtby had plenty of work– his risk is still one of limited playing time.

Holtby has been on the edge of prospect-starter status since making his NHL debut in 2010, when he appeared in 11 games for the Capitals. In the years since then, Holtby has made 7, 36, 48 and 73 appearances for the Capitals. The 2014-15 season was his coming out party, and it’s probably no coincidence that it coincided with the first year of the Barry Trotz era.

With only one full regular season under his belt, Holtby is still a somewhat — somewhat — unknown. However, that relative lack of starts hasn’t prevented others of his ilk from signing long-term deals.

The Devils locked up Corey Schneider after his first season in New Jersey, where he posted a 1.97 goals against average in just 45 games (he was forced to split time with Martin Brodeur in his first season, much like he did with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver). That deal got him a $6 million AAV, near-elite money for a starting goaltender in the term-limit era.

Like Schneider, Tuukka Rask got a max-term contract extension worth $56 million ($7 million AAV) following the Bruins’ Cup appearance in 2013, but had never appeared in more than 45 games in any of his six NHL seasons prior to that.

It took just 126 starts — about two full seasons’ worth — for Rask to sign his big contract. Schneider had 129 over parts of six seasons before signing his big contract.

Holtby has five seasons under his belt and 170 starts in that time.

It’s tough to establish a real market for goalies, and the next time a GM overvalues a goaltender will hardly be the first. However, the Capitals seem to have a good one in Holtby. His comparables in the league have already made their millions, and restricted free agents might not be immune to offer sheets in a summer with so little UFA talent available.

Washington will no doubt suffer from buyer’s remorse when some of their biggest contracts enter their twilight seasons. Even in the ballpark of seven years and $50-plus million, Holtby doesn’t project to turn into one of those players.

 

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