By Joshua Tenzer
Braden Holtby has been outstanding during his decade-long tenure with Washington for whom he has played 565 games, 97 of them in the postseason. He is a 2-time all-star, a Vezina winner, a William M. Jennings Trophy winner, and led the Capitals to a Stanley Cup championship. The team pays him 6.1 million dollars in cap hit which is high for a goalie but not in the top 5 most expensive netminders. The only problem with Holtby is his apparent decline. At the end of the 2016-17 season, Holtby got the second most all-star votes for a goalie, won the Jennings Trophy, came second in Vezina voting, and 10th in Hart voting. That season was also the last where he would receive any votes for any NHL awards or make it to the all-star game. The graphs below show Holtby’s numbers compared to the league averages in the two most useful goalie stats: Save percentage and goals-against average. As you can see, his GAA is increasing and his SV% is decreasing. On both stats he is sub-par. He’s on the wrong side of thirty and it looks like, assuming that he signs a long term contract, this will be his last serious chance at free-agency. How much money will he get?
The second kink in the chain is the reality of Holtby’s stats. As commented on above, Holtby appears to be past his prime and in a period of decay. His numbers are in a death spiral and it is yet to be seen if he can pull out of it. A smart team would recognize that the likelihood of Holby performing as well as he did in D.C. is slim and would offer him less money than he is making now. However, this is NHL and smart teams are hard to come by. Last year, there was a goalie who was up for a contract negotiation like Holtby, was nearly the exact same age as Holby is, and was on a 3-year decline like Holtby: Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky left the Blue Jackets, where he developed into a generational talent, and signed with the Florida Panthers for a cool 10 million dollars. Bobrovsky proceeded to have the worst season of his career. The Panthers won only one postseason game: a qualifying round victory over the Islanders, and would fail to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Will teams learn from what happened to the Panthers or make the same mistake and roll the dice again? It’s yet to be seen but I’m not too optimistic.
Despite all that, I think that Holtby will get about 6.25 million dollars in free agency this year. While that is an increase in money, it is actually a smaller percentage of the cap than when he signed his current contract in 2015. Bobrovsky also showed that NHL front offices are a sucker for the power of a big name even if the underlying statistics are cause for concern.
The question to answer now is what team will Holtby start for next season? If the team isn’t listed it’s because they have either finalized a solid goalie situation for the next year or spent too much money and don’t have the room to sign Holtby to a deal that he would take. There are some teams that either have a good goalie situation or no money that I included anyway because I wanted to bring attention to those specific teams.
Chicago Blackhawks: I Think Not
I’ve seen a few people on Twitter talking about how much fun it would be for Braden Holtby to sign with Chicago. I admit it would be fun to see Holtby play on the same team as other greats of the early 2010s like Partick Kane and Jonathan Toews. However, the Blackhawks already have a post-prime, 6 million dollar goalie they need to give a new contract to Corey Crawford. Prevailing wisdom has Crawford re-signing with Chicago and I tend to agree.
There's a rumor going around that the Leafs want to trade away their starting goalie Freddie Andersen and since they just sent their 2nd line winger Kasperi Kapanen for essentially the 15th pick of the 2020 draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if those rumors are true. It’s a very real possibility that Freddie Andersen isn’t on the Leafs come December considering it’s the final year of this contract and he’s played himself into a new contract that the Leafs can’t afford in the 2021 offseason. This then leaves Toronto with the goalie combination in their system being Jack Campbell backed up by Kasimir Kaskisuo which is not a winning combination. The Leafs would be in the market for a new starting goalie but they don’t really have the money for him. There’s some universe where Holtby is in blue next season but this universe probably isn’t it.
Is it possible that he will come back to the Capitals for the next season? Yes. Is it likely? Not at all. One factor in this is the man who played backup to Holtby during this past season: Ilya Samsonov. In 26 games with the Capitals, Samsonov posted a 16-6-2 record with a GAA of 2.54 and a save percentage of .914 putting him easily in the top 30 goalies stats-wise. He’s part of this wave of young goalies impressing their GMs this season. In addition to being statistically better than Holtby this year, Samsonov is cheap, still on his entry-level contract.
San Jose Sharks: Could Be
It is said that the Sharks are a rebuilding team and could definitely benefit from a veteran presence like Braden Holtby. The issues arise when you look at that statement more closely. They already have veteran presences like 41-year-old Joe Thornton and 35-year-old Brent Burns. The Sharks also already dropped a lot of cash on a 30-year-old goalie who hasn’t performed to the standards that they set for him. Martin Jones is paid 5.75 million dollars a year and since signing that contract has posted two straight .896 SV% seasons and a GAA of around 3.00. Jones also has a modified no-movement clause in which he submits a list of only three teams that the Sharks can trade him to. This essentially boils down to the fact that the Sharks are stuck with an overpaid, underperforming goaltender. Would they gamble on Braden Holtby after getting burned by Jones? Maybe, but it seems more likely that they would go for Matt Murray or Linus Ullmark who would cost them less in the event of another flop.
Detroit Red Wings: Top 3
The Detroit Red Wings are an interesting team right now. They have 11 players who will be UFAs or RFAs in the coming offseason and over 34 million dollars in cap space. Not only that, but they have the truest mark of a rebuilding team: No contracts that go into the 2023-24 season. If the 2019-20 season was the last season of them intentionally tanking, we can expect them to re-sign key players like Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi to long term contracts and start building the core that they will run with for the next half-decade.
The key position that the Red Wings need to fix with a free agent signing is goaltending. They started the season with their trust in Jimmy Howard. Throughout the season he played in 27 games and won only two of them. He’s old, his contract is expiring this offseason and he’s abysmal. He posted a SV% of less than .85 in a third of his starts. You might remember that a QS% of 50% is considered bad, Howard’s QS% was 26%! The goalie the Red Wings switched to was Jonathan Bernier who was better but still had a QS% of 42%. The Red Wings need a goalie and Holtby would be a massive improvement for them. They could sign Holtby and build a defensive core around his playstyle since they have zero defensemen on contract for the 2021-22 season.
Ottawa Senators: Top 3
Here we start getting into the teams that make the most sense for Holtby to go to. Like the Sharks, they are beginning their rebuild. They have a wealth of draft picks with 9 picks in the first 3 rounds of the 2020 NHL Draft. They also don’t have a serious future in net and their starter isn’t under contract for next season. Whereas with the Sharks, it didn’t make sense for Holbty to go there to be a veteran in the locker room, with the Sens, it would be a perfect role for him. They are poised to take the title of youngest team in the NHL from the Blackhawks and unlike Chicago, they don’t have a Kane or Duncan to give the roster a bit of maturity and guidance for the younger players. Holtby is a positive locker room presence and may even benefit himself from that mentor role.
The Sens could take the best goalie in the 2020 draft class Yaroslav Askarov with the number 5 pick. Though Askarov is predicted to go at 13 to Carolina, NHL.com has Askarov as the 6th best player in the draft so taking him at 5 isn’t Daniel Jones levels of reaching. Holtby could take the starting role as Askarov develops until they split starts and eventually Holtby gets relegated to a backup role. This can be built into the contract the Sens offer him by front-loading his salary, giving him upwards of 7 million in the first two years, going down to 6.5 million for the next two, and giving him 4.5 million for the last three years.
The Edmonton Oilers are good. They have two of the four best hockey players in the world on the same line. Their top 6 is monstrous, their bottom 6 forwards are a mix of young and old serviceable interchangeable parts. Their defense is young, hard-hitting, and strong. This begs the question: Why didn't they make the playoffs this year? They were the 5 seed going up against the 12 seeded Chicago Blackhawks. When the Blackhawks won, their weaknesses were exposed by the Golden Knights, they should not have been in the playoffs so how did they beat the Oilers? The Oilers scored 3 goals a game which is on par with how they did in the regular season and the league average. The issue is that they let in a total of 19 goals in four games. Mikko Koskinen is a fine enough backup in the regular season but in the playoffs he dropped to a .889 SV%. Their starter, Mike Smith had a .902 SV% in the regular season and .783 in the play-in round. If they want to complete their remake of the mid-80’s team, they’ve already cast Connor McDavid as Wayne Gretzky, Leon Draisaitl as Mark Messier, James Niel as Jari Kurri, and now they need Braden Holtby to play the role of Grant Fuhr.
The question I posed at the beginning of this article is so complex because of Holtby’s declining numbers, Bobrovsky’s contract, and each team having their own pros and cons. At the end of the day, the teams that make the most sense to me are the Senators, Red Wings, and Oilers. Out of those teams, I would say that he is most probably going to Edmonton in the offseason but no matter where he ends up, I will be watching very closely to see if it’s another flop or if he hoists the cup again.