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Why the Capitals must think twice about a Braden Holtby extension

He's one of the franchise's most important players ever. But he'll command a monstrous contract next summer, and his play has declined. Are the Caps better off spending their money elsewhere?

The Washington Capitals and goaltender Braden Holtby are reportedly set to start preliminary negotiations on his next contract, as he’s due to hit unrestricted free agency in summer 2020. It comes as no surprise GM Brian MacLellan has expressed interest in feeling things out with Holtby in hopes of getting him locked up to a long-term extension. He belongs on Washington’s franchise Mount Rushmore. He backstopped the Captials to their lone Stanley Cup. He won the Vezina Trophy and tied the NHL’s single-season wins record in 2015-16. He’s one shutout away from passing Olaf Kolzig for the franchise’s all-time record and can pass Kolzig for the franchise mark in career wins with 45 more.

So, of course you start talking extension with Holtby. He’s a D.C. institution. The question is how far those talks should progress, however. It is really a smart idea to extend Holtby? Several factors suggest Washington should tread carefully.

1. The salary cap

Sergei Bobrovsky signed a seven-year, $70-million UFA pact with the Florida Panthers this summer and set the market for Holtby in the process. Bobrovsky is 30, owner of two Vezina Trophies and a two-time first-team all-star. Next summer, Holtby will be 30. He already owns a Vezina, a Stanley Cup and a first-team all-star nod. The resumes are similar enough to make Bobrovsky’s deal an easy comparable.

But are the Capitals in position to commit $10 million or more annually to their starting netminder in 2020-21 and beyond? That’s highly debatable. They already have more than $62 million in salary committed for that season, and one of their most crucial forwards, center Nicklas Backstrom, also becomes a UFA next summer. Given his consistency and all-around excellent play, not to mention he’ll be “owed” some money after spending 10 years on a team-friendly deal, we should expect on AAV of $9 million or more on Backstrom’s new contract, barring a sudden nosedive in his play this season. Blueliner Radko Gudas also becomes a UFA next summer. The summer after that: the god himself, Alex Ovechkin, reaches the end of his contract, and Jakub Vrana will be due a new pact as an RFA.

Committing something in the range of eight years and $80 million for Holtby, then, could put MacLellan a bind when it comes to re-signing other key pieces.

2. Holtby’s declining play

Holtby’s enjoyed an outstanding career. Since 2012-13, he his first regular season as Washington’s No. 1, he leads the NHL in starts and wins. His .918 career save percentage ranks 14th all-time.

But the overall body of work masks the fact Holtby’s play has, aside from his wonderful 2018 playoff run, declined markedly over his past two seasons, which have yielded the two lowest SPs of his career at .907 and .911. Across that period, 68 goalies have logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Among that group, Holtby ranks 40th in save percentage and 40th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes. He hasn’t had enough help, as he ranks near the top of the sample in high-danger shots against per 60 minutes and expected goals against per 60 minutes, but he nevertheless grades out as average at best.

If you hand out $10 million a year, you need the recipient of that money to be elite, and Holtby hasn’t been of late. A max-term pact of eight years would pay him through age 38, and we’ve seen what happens when a franchise rewards its most decorated goaltender with a rich contract that pays him for his decline years. The New York Rangers love Henrik Lundqvist, but it’s tough to deny how crippling his contract has been. Even if Holtby bounces back for a few seasons, could he fend off the decline years on the back half of an eight-year deal? In a perfect world, Washington could lock him up for five years or fewer, but that would be a tough sell for Holtby when he knows he can get a seven-year commitment for monster money on the open market.

3. Ilya Samsonov

The Capitals used a first-round pick on Ilya Samsonov in 2015. They’ve considered him their goalie of the future ever since, and MacLellan used those same terms to describe Samsonov recently – when discussing the Holtby contract talks. According to our Future Watch panel of NHL scouts and team executives, Samsonov has graded out as the No. 1 or 2 goalie prospect in the sport every year since Washington drafted him.

He hasn’t excelled yet in the AHL but is just one season into his North American career and, at 22, remains a baby in goalie years. Sooner or later, he’s due for his chance in the NHL. But will his career progression matter if Holtby signs an eight-year extension? It would essentially block Samsonov from No. 1 duties for the duration of his 20s and likely turn him into trade bait.

It would be prudent for Washington to give Samsonov an extended look in the NHL this season – before putting pen to paper on any Holtby contract. If Samsonov shows he can be a viable starter or more, the Capitals have to consider rolling with him as their No. 1 in 2020-21. It would hurt to say goodbye to Holtby, a consummate pro and outstanding team ambassador, but the weight of his next contract could hurt more.

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