While Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan‘s focus is currently on retaining this summer’s unrestricted and restricted free agents in addition to adding depth to the team’s bottom-six forward group, checking in with goaltender Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom to see what their plans for the future are. Each of the two’s contracts is up next offseason and re-signing both of them will be a huge priority for MacLellan this summer. With limited cap space and a thin forward prospect group, especially down the middle, Backstrom will likely be higher than Holtby on MacLellan’s summer to-do list, which begs the question: what’s Holtby’s future in the nation’s capital?
After getting nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the second straight season in 2017, Holtby’s save percentage went down from .925 in 2016-17 to .907 last season before it increased slightly to .911 this past year. While 2017-18 was the worst year in Holtby’s career, a shaky defense for most of the season and a lengthy slump in February made his numbers a lot worse than they should have been. He bounced back with a .922 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs after backup goaltender Phillip Grubauer started the first two games of the First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. In addition, the 29-year old was in the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While Holtby has been one of the best, if not the best goaltender that the Capitals have had in the history of their franchise, prospect Ilya Samsonov recorded a save percentage of .925 or higher and a goals-against average of 2.31 or lower in every season since 2015-16 before he posted a save percentage of .898 and a goals-against average of 2.70 with the AHL’s Hershey Bears this past season, his first in North America. He spent every season before this past one with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL. While Samsonov, 22, did not impress the Capitals as much as they would have hoped, he improved as the season went on. His highlight of 2018-19 was in February when he posted a .940 save percentage.
With Samsonov likely taking over the reins in one to two seasons and goaltender Pheonix Copley sticking around for two to three more seasons as the Capitals signed him to a three-year contract on February 4, Holtby might very well be on the look for a new home soon. One of the reasons why Copley was re-signed was so that the Capitals would have a goaltender to expose in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
While Holtby acknowledged that he would love to stay in Washington beyond next season, the Capitals need more money to be able to re-sign Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin, who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. In addition, it is doubtful that Holtby would stay if he knew that there is a good chance that he could be left exposed in the expansion draft in 2021.
Because Samsonov will probably be ready to be an everyday NHL starter by 2020-21, the Capitals could opt to move on from Holtby and save an extra $6.1 million to re-sign key players and/or add some forwards via free agency or trade to stay competitive beyond their current window. Especially after seeing the goaltender’s play decline in the past three seasons, it would not be a surprise if the Capitals decide to go a different route as Holtby will turn 30 on September 16.
It is unlikely that the Capitals will put Holtby on the trade market in the next year but if the team struggles next season as the core is getting older, a trade could be in the works to get a return for the netminder. Though, that is not likely either.
Holtby could use Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s three-year, $21 million contract extension ($7 million AAV) that he signed last season as a starting point in contract negotiations. If that’s the type of money that Holtby will demand when those discussions start, it may be best for the organization to move on from him and spend that money on forwards as they have even bigger decisions to make there in each of the next three offseasons.
By Harrison Brown