The Washington Capitals made a statement Friday afternoon with their signing of Braden Holtby to a five-year, $30.5 million deal: making the post-season and competing for the Stanley Cup is nice, but the Capitals are ready to fill their trophy case.
This off-season has already been a big one in Washington with the signing of 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Justin Williams and the trade for American Olympic hero T.J. Oshie. However, the signing of Holtby, their star netminder and one of the top candidates for the Vezina Trophy in 2014-15, signifies something more. It signifies a commitment to nothing but the best at every position.
News had come earlier this week that Holtby, 25, was seeking somewhere in the range of $8 million on a one-year deal should he and the Capitals get to salary arbitration. It had even been reported that Washington was ready to proceed with the option of Holtby becoming a restricted free agent again next season. But with a $6.1 million annual cap hit for the next five seasons, GM Brian MacLellan locked up his starter long term, giving the Capitals the security in goal the team has been seeking since Olaf Kolzig left in 2008.
Over the seven-year span since Kolzig’s departure, the Capitals have used 10 different netminders, ranging from an aging Jose Theodore to Jaroslav Halak. But none has fit – or excelled – like Holtby, who already has a third of Kolzig’s club-record win total in 25 percent of the amount of games.
In the past two seasons, one would be hard pressed to find a goaltender who has performed as admirably as Holtby. Since 2013-14, Holtby ranks fifth in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage with a .930 mark. That’s similar to the numbers put up by Carey Price, Tuukka Rask and Cory Schneider, a class of goaltender that all 30 teams in the league would love to have. But beyond Holtby’s numbers is the message sent by the Capitals that they see their Stanley Cup window as one that’s been blown wide open.
Looking down the roster, the core of the group, which includes Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Holtby, will be together for at least the next three seasons barring an unforeseen trade. They’re all under 30, have the experience of a deep post-season run this past campaign, the tutelage of one of the most respected coaches in the league in Barry Trotz and, as a not-so-secret weapon, Holtby is being guided by Trotz’s right hand man and goaltending guru, Mitch Korn.
Everybody knows what the Capitals big names can do – Ovechkin is the 40-goal guy, Backstrom the deft playmaker, Carlson the steady young defenseman – but in mentioning the core group, the impressive cast of youngsters Washington has lined up can sometimes be overlooked. Namely, the Capitals boast Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, each of whom are under 25 and already making contributions to the big club.
Johansson, 24, is still yet to ink his new deal, but the restricted free agent has already grown into an incredibly consistent performer, putting up 40-plus point seasons in each of his past three full seasons. Even in the lockout-shortened campaign, his points-per-game pace had him in line for at least a 40-point year were it a full year.
Kuznetsov, 23, is coming off of an 11-goal, 37-point rookie year, but his real ability showed up in the post-season when he dazzled with five goals and seven points in 14 playoff games, including the Game 7 first-round series winning goal against the New York Islanders. He’s got all the makings of a good second-line pivot in 2015-16 and that would give Washington a deadly one-two punch.
And the youngest of the three, the 20-year-old Burakovsky, struggled at times this past season, but showed moments of brilliance. His nine goals and 22 points in 53 games were hopefully a sign of what is to come for the young Austrian and he could be the perfect fit as a third-line winger in Washington this season. He also has the skill to play some second-unit power play minutes and can shift to center, which is a nice option for Trotz to have.
In the next three seasons, the Capitals could also solidify their defense with the likes of Madison Bowey, ranked 25th in THN’s 2015 Future Watch edition, and Connor Carrick. Ultra-talented Czech winger Jakub Vrana, 33rd overall in Future Watch, could also suit up to give Washington even more offensive punch.
That said, no matter how much the Capitals want to contend or what the club is currently built to do, if things grew contentious with Holtby and the team lost him as he entered the prime of his career, the whole thing could be all for naught. During the high-flying, high-powered days of the Bruce Boudreau-coached Capitals, it always felt as if something was missing. Now, especially with Holtby locked up, it feels like everything is in place.
The Holtby-led Capitals were a win away from the Eastern Conference final in 2014-15. Don’t be surprised if you see Washington in that same position again come next May with a different result. This isn’t a team built to make the post-season anymore. No, this is a team that’s ready for their next, big step.