The Washington Capitals have been one of the most interesting teams to watch in the NHL so far this offseason. Long seen as a team on the cusp of greatness, the team was aggressive in acquiring TJ Oshie from the St. Louis Blues and then signing former Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams in free agency in an effort to finally deliver a Stanley Cup for franchise cornerstone Alex Ovechkin. In the front office, owner Ted Leonsis admitted that the team has failed Ovechkin in his quest for a Cup by not putting enough talent around him in the past. While the team has certainly made plenty of moves to address that issue since the opening of free agency, their most important deal likely still remains.
World-class goaltender Braden Holtby will be headed to arbitration today with a reported gap of nearly $3 million between him and the team in their most recent contract assessments. Holtby is coming off a spectacular campaign for the Capitals, which saw him solidify a place among the game’s top goalies after posting 9 regular season shutouts and a .944 save percentage in the postseason. But with arbitration looming and restricted free agent Marcus Johansson still without a contract, Washington may have a difficult time securing their starting goalie long-term. With such a big gap between what the team is willing to pay Holtby and his arbitration demands, the team may have alienated their young star to a point that would make it difficult for them to keep him beyond his protected Restricted Free Agent years.
This is especially alarming when the structure of Washington’s team is taken into consideration. While the team does have stars Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin signed long-term, league-wide trends have suggested that it takes more than two superstars to win a Stanley Cup. Having Holtby for the long-run would not only give the team a very good starting goalie for a long time, it would also give them a core of talent that would be virtually unmatched across the league in terms of ability and staying power. The team would also benefit from the continued development of Holtby (who at 25 is still approaching his prime), Johansson, and young Russian sniper Evgeny Kuznetsov. A core of that caliber would not only be able to compete for a title in the short-term, but would also have a very good chance of maintaining that success over a longer period of time.
Analyzing recent Cup-winning goalies also helps Holtby’s cause. The last average goalie to win a title was Antti Niemi back with the loaded 2010 Chicago Blackhawks. Since then, Tim Thomas, Corey Crawford, and Jonathan Quick have all had to be very good for their teams in order to earn a ring. This means that if the Capitals really are serious about winning a Cup for their beloved captain, then Holtby is going to need to be along for the ride as no goalie on the free agent market within the next two seasons is comparable in terms of youth, performance, and durability. Mediocre goalies simply do not win titles anymore, and losing out on a game-changer of Holtby’s caliber could be the final nail in the coffin for Ovie’s championship quest.
What’s more, while Holtby’s arbitration demands of $8 million for one season may seem absurd initially, offering him a long-term deal at a comparable rate would actually be beneficial to the team overall. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist recently signed a contract worth $8.5 million per season, and at 33 years old, has nearly ten years more mileage on him than the still-improving Capitals keeper. Additionally, while the two goalies have an identical .921 career regular season SV%, Holtby’s postseason .936 rating is far better than Lundqvist’s .923. This makes Washington’s unwillingness to offer Holtby a long-term deal worth in excess of $6 million annually (his reported demands for more than a short-term contract) all the more puzzling.
Combined with the rising price of star players in the league, it seems to make sense for the Capitals to shell out the extra cash for a goalie who has clearly attained elite status. If Leonsis waits any longer to secure his defensive cornerstone he may have to pay in excess of $10 million per season and be forced to part with valuable young assets in a fashion similar to that of the Blackhawks in order to stay below the salary cap ceiling.
(Holtby stacks up well against some of the NHL’s highest paid goalies)
While it’s easy for me to look at Washington’s $10.3 million of cap space and immediately allocate $6.5 million for Holtby, it is a risky investment for Leonsis and his franchise. Injuries, a lack of confidence, or even a coaching change could dramatically alter the current course of Holtby’s promising young career. But when comparing his numbers to those of Lundqvist, analyzing Washington’s Cup aspirations, and understanding the rising cost of keeping a superstar on one team long-term, it’s definitely in Leonsis’s best interest to avoid todays’s arbitration hearing by caving into Holtby’s demands. For Capitals management, now is the time to pay the price to be great.