We’re now several weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to continue our new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
To catch up on the previous edition, click here.
Today, we’ll each give our thoughts on Braden Holtby’s playing future.
Q: Where will Braden Holtby be playing in 2020-21?
Brian La Rose:
It seems safe to rule out Washington at this point. With $71MM committed for next season, they don’t have a lot of wiggle room to add another high-priced player and Ilya Samsonov will need a new, potentially pricey deal in 2021. Holtby has been a big part of the Capitals for a long time but they’re close to parting ways.
It’s not a great year to be a starting goalie that’s hitting the open market. There aren’t many openings for clear cut number ones and with the year Sergei Bobrovsky had, teams will be hesitant to sign an expensive deal. Some teams that have a need probably don’t have the money (Chicago comes to mind) which limits things even further.
This has to be great news for Detroit. They have a glaring weakness between the pipes to try to fill and their prospect depth is limited. They’re in solid shape when it comes to the salary cap and with Steve Yzerman at the helm as GM, there is optimism that their days of being in the basement are quickly coming to an end.
That makes them a great fit for Holtby. Even though he’s had a down year by his standards, his track record is good enough that he’d still be the clear cut starter for the Red Wings and could still command a sizable contract. There may be another losing season in the short term but over the long haul, this may be the best situation for both sides.
I’ve always been a fan of Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, but to be honest, I’ve not been crazy about his play the last couple of years. Yes, he bounced back in the 2017-18 playoffs after losing his job to Philipp Grubauer, but he hasn’t been the same since. He finished the 2018-19 season with a 2.82 GAA and a .911 save percentage and those numbers actually plummeted this year with a 3.11 GAA and .897 save percentage, which makes you wonder how many teams will be willing to pay up for Holtby’s services.
In reality, the Capitals might be really lucky that Ilya Samsonov had such an impressive rookie year. Had he struggled this year, they would be in a tough situation. Any team that is interested in Holtby has to be quite wary of how the 30-year old (31 at the start of next season) has played recently and I would not give him term of any significant length.
However, I could see several teams interested in signing him in hopes that he might bounce back and personally, I wouldn’t be shocked if a team like the Buffalo Sabres might opt to buy out Carter Hutton and bring in Holtby to share the net with Linus Ullmark over the next few years. The defense is getting stronger and they have some talent not far away from coming in to help both netminders. The key, once again, is not to offer too long of a deal, especially since the Sabres have been burned by free agents over the years.
When it comes to Braden Holtby, the only thing that is certain is that he will be playing in a starter’s role to begin next season. Holtby was one of the best players in the NHL from 2014-17, so while his numbers have shown a marked drop-off in recent years, he still has the experience and brand power to land a major contract that guarantees him a top role in net. That’s not to say that the team investing in the Vezina Trophy winner is making a wise decision, but someone will do it.
Who exactly that will be is hard to tell. A Saskatchewan native who played junior for his hometown Saskatoon Blades, Holtby has no real ties to any other NHL market besides Washington. Beyond a possible reunion with first NHL coach Bruce Boudreau, should he land with a team who had needs in net, Holtby’s destination will likely not be based on any past relationships either, but rather simply the best offer.
While things are sure to change this off-season with the possibilities of a stagnant salary cap and compliance buyouts, right now there are few teams in need of a bona fide starter. Staying with the Caps or moving to the Blackhawks or Sharks would be an ideal fit, but would be very difficult in terms of cap construction. On the other end of the spectrum, the Red Wings, Senators, Sabres, and Devils could use help in net but are likely hesitant to make a major investment when they are not close to contending.
For my money, I would say that Chicago is most likely to figure out how to make Holtby fit. They are the only team in the league without an NHL option signed for next season and are desperate to solve that situation and get back to competing for Stanley Cups. A Brent Seabrook compliance buyout would go a long way to making this dream a reality. If San Jose can move Martin Jones or Buffalo decides to go all-in this summer, I would say that those two teams have the flexibility to be players for Holtby as well. I think the Capitals are prepared to move forward with Ilya Samsonov and a top veteran backup.
When you think of signing big-name free agents, which is the very last team you consider? Maybe the Carolina Hurricanes, who haven’t been a big UFA player on July 1 since, well they’ve never really been one. Perhaps that all changes this year, when Holtby will be available for the highest bidder.
Yes, it would be quite a shock for Carolina to make a commitment of that level to a free agent. Yes, the Hurricanes do already have two goaltenders each making more than $3MM next season. And yes, even with the expiring Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk contracts the team still has an expensive defense corps.
But if there has been any theme to the team’s moves since Tom Dundon took over as owner, it’s that they’re willing to take a swing at that inside fastball and try to put it in the seats. That’s exactly what Holtby would be for a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals just a year ago. The Hurricanes have shown they can be an elite possession team, own one of the finest defensive groups in the NHL, and after some shrewd trades the last few years now have a young top-nine that could rival almost any in the league.
There would need to be other moves that go along with it. Obviously James Reimer and Petr Mrazek couldn’t both be on the roster along with Holtby, but given that the team still has some time before Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas get really expensive, perhaps one of them could. A tandem of Holtby-Mrazek for instance still might not be that much more expensive than the ones in Florida and Montreal, where Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price already make at least $10MM per season. After his down year and with the squeezed salary cap Holtby won’t command that much, but he could still give the Hurricanes that kind of Vezina-caliber, championship-level goaltending they’ve lacked for so long.
What better motivation could there be than to stay in the Metropolitan Division?