It’s been two months since the National Hockey League paused its season but it feels like an eternity. In the meantime, we can whet our appetites by looking ahead to July 1, when the NHL’s Free Agency period begins.
Since the beginning of the hiatus, Washington Capitals fans have been wondering what will happen to Braden Holtby. Their long-time starting goaltender will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of this season. If the salary cap remains at $81.5 million, then the Capitals may not have enough cap space to re-sign Holtby for a higher average annual value (AAV) than the $6.1 million he’s earning now.
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If Holtby decides to sign elsewhere, here are five UFA goalies that the Capitals should target this offseason.
Over the last two seasons, Lehner has emerged as one of the league’s top goaltenders. In 2018-19, he posted career highs in all goaltending categories. The Big Swede went 25-13-5 with a .930 save percentage (SV%) and 2.13 goals-against average (GAA) in 46 games. The 2019 Masterton Trophy winner went 19-10-5 with a .920 SV% this season.
This summer, the 28-year-old has the leverage to demand as much as $8 million. Lehner has put together a good body of work over the last two seasons, but he has also shared his goaltending duties. He was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2020 trade deadline, and in both cities, he split starts with Corey Crawford and Marc-André Fleury, respectively. If he comes to Washington D.C., he will share the crease with Ilya Samsonov, a second-year NHLer and not a Cup-winning goalie. It’s unlikely Lehner is interested in doing that again because he has the leverage to demand a starting role this offseason.
Lehner will likely sign with the highest bidder, and the Capitals may not have enough cap space available to sign him at an AAV higher than $5-$6 million. He is one of the best UFA goalies available this offseason, so the Caps should at least inquire about him.
The 34-year-old Russian flew under the radar for much of his career prior to joining the Dallas Stars. However, over the past two seasons, he has a combined 32-25-9 record, a .926 SV% and a 2.42 GAA. That includes his league-leading .930 SV% and third-best 2.22 GAA. Not bad for the second fiddle.
This season, the Stars ranked 29th in goals for, but they allowed the second-fewest goals (174). Their defense allowed just seven more goals than the Boston Bruins, who were favorites to win the Presidents’ Trophy before the pause. In 2019-20, the tandem of Ben Bishop and Khudobin was the best in the league.
Khudobin earned an AAV of $2.5 million this season. Based on his play, he is worth much more than that. The Capitals would do well to offer the 34-year-old a three-year, $15 million deal. Here, he could be a great mentor for Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek. He speaks Russian and the Capitals have five Russian players on their roster. However, Khudobin’s recent success is the main reason why the Capitals should sign him for an AAV that fits under their cap ceiling.
Markstrom earned the Canucks’ starting position for his consistent play recently. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, he was durable and started 60 games in each season. He suffered a lower-body injury on Feb. 22 that kept him out for the rest of the season, so his future is unclear.
Markstrom was signed to a three-year deal worth an AAV of $3.6 million. However, he is a UFA who will want a raise since he has been a starter for three straight seasons. How he would fit into a Caps roster with three young goalies is tough to figure out. However, he clearly has the talent, and if the Caps make him a good offer, he might take it.
Thomas Greiss has earned an AAV of $3.33 million over the last three seasons. The 34-year-old went from a journeyman to a starter after the 2018-19 season, which was his career-best with a .927 SV% and 2.28 GAA. This season, Greiss had a 16-9-4 record and a .913 SV%.
Greiss is probably going to demand an AAV of at least $3.5 million this offseason. However, the Capitals could get a bargain here, because Greiss has 10 years of NHL experience and would be a great mentor for the rookie Samsonov. The Capitals should consider offering him a three-year deal worth $5 million per year at the most.
Another perfect fit would be 32-year-old Cam Talbot. However, the Ontario native’s numbers have diminished over the last three seasons. In 2018-19, he finished with career lows in SV% (.892) and wins (11). This season, he played backup to Calgary Flames starting goaltender David Rittich. Talbot did very well in that role this season, going 12-10-1 with a 2.63 GAA and a .919 SV%. He also posted two shutouts.
The Flames had Talbot signed on a skimp one-year deal for $2.75 million. The Capitals should be able to easily fit Talbot under their salary cap this offseason. His willingness to share the crease and his solid play this season makes him a perfect fit for the Capitals, where he could share the crease with Samsonov next season.
Talbot the Best Fit
Talbot is the free agent that the Capitals should sign because he has the skill level and experience to step in and mentor Samsonov next season. Given the Capitals’ limited cap space this offseason, Talbot’s lower asking price would fit.
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Signing Talbot for $3 million this summer would allow the Capitals to stay competitive moving forward. He played well this season as a backup and would probably be well-suited to perform that duty again next season. Talbot has the right experience and selfless mentality to come to D.C. and share goaltending duties on a Stanley Cup contender.