Capitals Dragging Their Feet on Holtby

Capitals Dragging Their Feet on Holtby
James A Conley

This was supposed to be the summer of the restricted free agent offer sheet.

It didn’t happen.

If the fear of having a player signed to an offer sheet manifested itself in any way at all, it was through preemptive trades made with RFA players. Chicago’s deal to move Brandon Saad ahead of the start of free agency — when offer sheets could first be tabled — was the big example.

Other deals were made, though none more than peripherally attributed to the possibility of other general managers placing values on a GMs own player. The weak UFA market kept NHL GMs in check for a change, but it didn’t quite get as far as busting down the taboo of telling your colleagues what his players are worth.

If there were going to be any big RFA targets aside from Saad, you can put Washington goaltender Braden Holtby right at the top of the list.

Holtby has been dangling without a deal since July 1. He’s still unsigned, having received neither an offer sheet nor a contract extension as of July 7.

Amid all the goalie deals that went down during free agency and in trades, none involved names more valuable than Holtby, who established himself as a top-tier goaltender this season and especially in the playoffs.

The latest news on that front? He and the Capitals will go through the first rounds of salary arbitration.

It’s not uncommon. A total of 23 players filed for salary arbitration Sunday, and the list includes names on the order of Derek Stepan, Gustav Nyquist and Adam Larsson. In most cases, these arbitration filings are the first steps in a process that ends with an amicably-signed deal. It takes longer, but everyone goes home happy.

But not always.

Salary arbitration can be a torturous process if followed through all the way. At some point, submitting a player to a third-party arbitrator for valuation means arguing on behalf of yourself in spite of your player.

It’s a long ways off from Sunday’s arbitration filing. But getting there is a no-win situation.

From a 2012 report on salary arbitration in Sports Illustrated,

“Horror stories from old arbitration cases remain cautionary tales for both teams and players, such as the time in 1997 when former New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury reportedly reduced Tommy Salo to tears with reasons why the goalie didn’t deserve his asking price. In 2000, former Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke was said to have angered John LeClair so much during an “arbo” hearing—badmouthing the winger even though LeClair had scored 40 or more goals in each of the previous five seasons—that their working relationship was irreparably damaged. (LeClair walked away from that bruisefest with a then-record $7 million award.) Former Colorado Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix had a well-documented history of getting rid of players not long after they filed for arbitration.”

Arbitration hearings have decreased greatly from their totals of a decade ago. The threat of such unpleasantness has proven enough to make them a tough sell. The installation of the salary cap and rules regarding entry-level contracts and restricted free agency have also made these kinds of things less common.

That’s not to say there aren’t a couple famous examples from recent seasons. Shea Weber and the Predators went to arbitration in 2011. It was the only case to go all the way to an arbitrator in 2011, and ended with Weber earning the highest arbitration award in NHL history at $7.5 million.

Last summer featured a few good ones. P.K. Subban and the Canadiens came dangerously close to damaging their business relationship before reaching an eight-year deal that made Subban the highest-paid defenseman in the NHL (in terms of AAV). A dustup in Columbus left the Blue Jackets and franchise center Ryan Johansen millions apart for most of the summer. They finally signed their top forward to a three-year, $12 million bridge deal just before the standoff would have turned into a holdout that extended into the NHL season.

It’s unlikely that things with Holtby get all the way to a third-party arbitrator. Team and player both have to know the peril of going down that road. But if the Capitals have any reservations about what Holtby is worth, they best align their offers with his production in a hurry.

We’ve covered in this space before what Holtby is in line to earn based on his work compared to the league. He’s got a pair of comparables in Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider to help gauge his next deal. All three are nearly the same age (Holtby is just a bit younger) and of nearly identical NHL experience (Holtby has more of it ahead of his anticipated deal).

Cory Schneider is an excellent comparable for the Caps and Holtby.

Rask and Schneider have their long-term deals, and both rank among the top-ten highest paid goaltenders in the league. Neither had Holtby’s experience when they signed their big contracts.

Holtby is line for a big boy contract, and a well-earned one. He finished the playoffs with a 1.71/.944 line, the best of any goaltender with at least ten postseason appearances. His first full year under Barry Trotz saw him post a 2.22/.923 line in 73 games en route to a 41-20-10 record in the regular season. Outside of routine 50-goal scorer and captain Alex Ovechkin, Holtby might have proven himself the Capitals’ most important player.

Washington hit the offseason with some $20 million in cap space and a number of vacancies to fill. They’ve begun doing so, but none address their greatest offseason task in locking up the crease.

The Capitals have signed Justin Williams in free agency and traded for T.J. Oshie. RFA forward Evgeny Kuznetsov got his bridge deal Monday, a two-year, $6 million deal. Fellow RFA forward Marcus Johansson can’t be far behind.

This is all a lot of work to take care of before tending to the best postseason performer on the roster. The Capitals are down to just over $10 million in cap space, according to, with 20 players signed. Holtby and Johansson represent the last of the team’s roster needs for the offseason, barring a luxury signing. Johansson is due a raise, but nothing he can command should stand in the way of what Holtby expects to earn.

Washington has enjoyed a nice offseason so far, and addressed the most pressing need in bolstering their top-six. With Metropolitan rivals boosting their own top lines in Pittsburgh (Phil Kessel) and Columbus (Saad), the moves for Williams and Oshie helped the Caps keep pace with their closest rivals.

All of that good work could be tarnished, however, if it stands in the way of signing Holtby to a significant contract extension.


I’m on

James A Conley

James is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His work also appears at Pensburgh, ThePensNation, Sports and Shnarped. Shower him with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.

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