Caps netminder Braden Holtby had a breakout 2014-15 campaign, appearing in a League-high 73 games, finishing solidly in the top-ten in wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts, and raising his game to an even higher level in the post-season.
Now it's time for Holtby to get paid.
Still a restricted free agent (RFA), Holtby doesn't have as much leverage right now as if he was unrestricted, but the Caps clearly love him and the feeling appears mutual - getting a deal done that makes sense for all parties appears to be high on everyone's list of priorities... including ours, as we tackle the issues surrounding Holtby's next contract Two Dudes style.
So, Rob, in the context of the current marketplace and given his restricted free agent status, what is Braden Holtby worth to the Caps?
Rob: There's a lot going on with that question, so let's try to unpack it a little. What's Holtby worth to the Caps? A lot. Even with the systems improvement, the blueline improvement, and the addition of young talent, the Caps went as Holtby went. He was clearly their most important player in terms of team success all season. When Holtby slumped, the Caps slumped. He was able to bail out some poor team performances, but the team was rarely good enough to bail out a poor performance from Holtby (or his backup). So in terms of what he meant to the team this past season, his importance can't really be overstated.
But then there's the market, and that's where things get tricky. You look at the list of high paid goalies and there are as many head scratchers as there are no-brainers. Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price? Sure, that makes sense. But then you get into Cam Ward, Corey Crawford, Ryan Miller, and Cory Schneider. If those guys are in the elite echelon of goalies then how do you say Holtby isn't? Luckily for the Caps, the RFA status should help keep Holtby's next contract a bit lower than those guys, but the core problem is highlighted by the inconsistency at the top of the goaltending market. How can you be sure you're signing a Lundqvist/Price/Rinne instead of a Ward/Crawford/Miller?
Because of that inconsistency, I'd counsel towards a shorter term contract, ideally keeping the AAV lower as well since fewer UFA years would be bought out. Holtby has at times been great, but I don't see the track record that makes me confident enough to go all in with a long term, high dollar contract. You can win a Cup with a less-than-elite goalie, but it's much harder to win with an overpaid goalie. I'd be more concerned about giving Holtby a long term contract that could end up an overpayment than I would be with a short term contract that doesn't necessarily make the statement that Braden Holtby is the goalie of the future in Washington.
J.P.: There aren't many "sure things" in the world of goaltending, and with a younger guy like Holtby, the certainty is even less. But the market has spoken on this, to an extent. When Carey Price signed his current contract, he was a restricted free agent like Holtby, and had a career 124-104-35/2.56/.916 line (and three top-ten Vezina finishes). He signed for six years at an average annual value (AAV) of $6.5 million. When Sergei Bobrovsky signed his contract that will kick in next year, he was a pending restricted free agent like Holtby, and has a career 83-48-14/2.39/.923 line (and a Vezina). He signed for four years at an AAV of $7.425.
Holtby hasn't won a Vezina, but he'll finish in the top-five or so in voting this year and has a career 101-51-18/2.44/.921 line (and that's including two seasons playing under Adam Oates). Those numbers are right in line with Price and Bob... and Holtby also has the highest playoff save percentage of any active goalie with at least 20 games played.
Holtby also has the highest regular-season save percentage through his 25-year-old season of any active goalie with 150 or more appearances to that point. So I don't think that something like five-years at an AAV of $7 million would be unsupported by the market, even with the RFA discount. And, personally, I'm not really worried about Holtby flopping - at this point, I think his floor is "above-average starting goalie" and his ceiling is as high as it gets.
Now, the question is whether or not he's worth that sort of cap hit to the Caps, and, if not, how high they'd go. And to me, that's where you get into what's strange about the NHL's goalie market - while teams pay big bucks time and time again to lock up franchise goalies (or, more accurately, guys they think are franchise goalies), the market is flooded with talented "Plan B" options. To wit, back in April, James Mirtle wrote about how well cheap, young goalies had been performing in the playoffs recently. Here's what he wrote:
And here's five-on-five save percentage plotted against AAV for every goalie who played 1,500 five-on-five minutes this past season (data via war-on-ice):
It's all over the place - there are more guys on this list with save percentages at .930 or better who have an AAV of $4.1 million or less (six) than guys at .930 or above who make more than that (five). And these aren't even guys on entry-level contracts. So even if you love the guy you've got, even if you want to commit to him, there are always options.
Of course, knowing that they exist and finding them is a different story. For the Caps, do they have a solid Plan B in Philipp Grubauer? Would they need to look at a guy like an Eddie Lack or a stopgap like Craig Anderson? It would definitely be riskier than bringing Holtby back. But what premium are you willing to pay for that (perceived) certainty? What if it costs you a top-six wing now or a top-four defenseman down the road? These aren't easy questions, but I think that the decisions on Holtby start getting pretty difficult pretty fast as the salary requests get north of $5.5 million per year, and I could go up to $6 million or so if the deal is in the five-year range. You?
Rob: Great pull on the Mirtle post, and that's definitely in the back of my mind. When a guy like Pekka Rinne can be outplayed by the opposition's backup in a playoff series, how much confidence can you really have that your big money goalie is going to give you a big money performance? The Caps have done pretty well with the young goalies in recent years, moving on from the Olie Kolzig era with the Cristobal Huet rental, followed by the Jose Theodore reclamation project until Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and now Holtby could handle starting duties. They may not have gotten Vezina-worthy performances from any of them, but it's hard to say any of the team's failures have really been tied to goaltending, either.
Is Grubauer ready for prime time right now? Maybe not, but he could be within another two to three seasons, which is why I'm concerned about trying to lock Holtby up for six to eight years. It's entirely conceivable that letting Grubauer develop and then take the starting job at a cheaper price point would provide better value in the future. And after Grubauer the Caps still have Vanecek waiting in the wings, and remember that they were impressed enough with him to burn a draft pick to move up to get him. The Caps have a pretty strong recent track record of developing goalies, and last summer they added possibly the best goalie coach in the game. I'm not worried that Holtby is the last or only chance the Caps are going to have to secure a quality starting goalie so I'd hope they don't feel too much pressure to lock him in forever without getting a team-friendly cap hit.
But your point stands. The market is the market, and there is no way Holtby and his agent don't see that. I think $5.5 million is pretty close to my point of squeamishness as well, but we have to consider the marginal costs. I'd really love to have Holtby come back at $4 to $4.5 million, even if it's a shorter deal, but how much is that really saving over a longer $5.5 million deal? Not much, it's basically the difference of a fourth line player. I wouldn't let something that small keep me from extending Holtby. As you say, he's nearly a guarantee to be above average for the foreseeable future so there's no urgency to look outside the organization. As an example, Craig Anderson makes $4.2 million and he'd cost trade assets going the other way. There's almost no way it makes more sense to trade for Anderson rather than pay an extra million for Holtby. So if the Caps can get Holtby to sign a deal that gives them a couple UFA years (i.e., not just a bridge deal) and keep it in the $5.5 million ballpark, it looks like a win for the team.
Where it gets tricky is if another team decides to force Brian MacLellan's hand. I know that any discussion of RFA offer sheets is essentially academic in today's NHL, but what if the Edmonton Oilers decide that they want to get aggressive in their rebuild and decide to offer Braden Holtby $6.5 million? Or even $7 million? Even if they only do it for a short term, that puts the Caps in an awkward spot. The compensation they'd get back would be a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick. Given the expected value of the 2nd and 3rd, that's basically a 1st round pick and some ammo to add a depth player at the trade deadline. That doesn't seem like a very fair return for a young goalie that has such a bright future, but can the Caps really afford to match that kind of offer? How would you handle that kind of hypothetical offer, and where's your walk away point on an offer sheet?
J.P.: This year's salary cap is set at $71.4 million. Already, 22.7% of that will go to Alex Ovechkin's and Nicklas Backstrom's cap hit. Another 15.8% will go to Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Heck, another 14.2% will go to Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera. That's more than half of the cap dedicated to two-thirds of the first line, a pair of top-four defensemen, a middle-six forward and two fourth-liners. And they haven't signed Evgeny Kuznetsov or Marcus Johansson and will need to sign or replace Joel Ward, Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle. At some point, you've gotta walk away from another huge commitment when cheaper alternatives exist - the Caps' problems have never been about Alex Ovechkin, they've been about the team with which he's been surrounded, and a bad deal on a goalie would only further limit their flexibility.
Besides, we know all too well about the increased unpredictability of goalies over small samples - even the guys like Tuukka Rask and Rinne - so the playoffs are even more of a crapshoot, and that's really the only time a contender needs their goalie to show up big (then again, while you aren't ready to say that goaltending has cost the Caps in the playoffs, check out this stat line - in the four series in which Bruce Boudreau's Caps were eliminated from the playoffs, his goalies went a combined 9-16/3.19/.898; in the seven games in which Alex Ovechkin's Caps have been sent packing, his goalies compiled an 0-7/3.47/.883 line, and that includes Holtby's terrific 37-for-39 Game 7 effort this season). But if your goalie's salary makes it harder to build a contending caliber team and you can't even be sure you're going to get elite goaltending when you need it, it's that much harder to justify a huge deal.
If the Caps can't get a longer-term deal done, Holtby has said he'd take another "prove yourself" one-year deal and, to be honest, that might be my preference overall (as it would allow them to go more "all-in" on what seems like a good year to go all-in, given the age of their superstars, the wide open East, the presumed progression from last year and so on). But if another team forces their hand with an offer sheet, it gets even harder. Here's the compensation table you were referring to:
Let's start at the bottom - anything at an AAV of $7,305,316 is a no-brainer: you take the picks and run, as much to avoid getting stuck with that contract as for the value of the picks on their own. And, from the top, anything less than $5,478,987 you sign in a heartbeat (though if Holtby was willing to sign in that range, it's almost inconceivable that it'd get to the point where the Caps have an offer sheet to match). So we're really talking about that one range - $5.5 to $7.3 million, give or take a few bucks. Those picks would probably tip the balance for me at matching anything over $6 million, depending on term... and then I'd spend every waking moment plotting to exact my revenge on Edmonton. What's your walk point?
Rob:I think the term is almost as important as the money for me when it comes to the walk point. If Edmonton (or whomever) wants to offer Holtby $6.5 million for two years, I'd be more inclined to match... and then immediately start plotting my revenge on Edmonton (and figuring out who the starter is after those two years). I think anything over $6.5 million I'd probably walk, even on a short term deal because of what it does to the cap structure - we're no longer talking about a marginal / fourth line difference in money. That two million dollars from my desired $4.5 million price point is the difference from having another checking forward in the top six and finding a way to add the much coveted top line tight wing.
I'd also be more likely to walk away from a longer term deal, even if it were under the $6.5 million point. I don't think $6.25 million over seven seasons is a good deal for the Caps. Even assuming a rising cap through the life of the deal, the team can't afford to calcify their salary cap structure with another high dollar, long term deal. The cap may increase, but there's absolutely no rule that says that long term contracts necessarily become better value as the cap rises. It seems just as likely a team will end up with a Brooks Laich long-term contract as they will a Nicklas Backstrom long-term contract, and that's before we even factor in the uncertainty of the goaltending position. Jonas Hiller had an elite three year run from ~2010-2012, and last year the Flames picked him up off the scrap heap for less than we're postulating for Holtby. Ryan Miller had a similar run, and is still being paid like he's that guy, but got out-played by his backup last year. So, when it comes to a long term deal, unless the AAV is unequivocally team-friendly, I'd walk. It's a tough business, and I don't envy Brian MacLellan this summer.
J.P.: Disagree - Mac has his name on the Cup and is an NHL general manager that gets to read our blog every day. What's not to envy?
But yeah, I think we're pretty much on the same page here - we like Holtby, might even love him, but you've gotta draw a line somewhere, and that line seems to be in the $5.5 to $6.5 million range, depending on term, and Ross Mahoney and Mitch Korn have made it a little easier to believe that life would go on with or without Holtby.
What I can't go on without is another round. You're buying.