Capitals: Breaking Down Uncertain Goalie Situation

This NHL offseason has been a busy one for the Washington Capitals. So far, general manager Brian MacLellan has traded away two key components of the 2018 Stanley Cup champion team, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen. Later, he scrambled to find lower-price replacements for rising forward Brian Connolly, who earlier this week took a four-year deal with the Florida Panthers.

Yet some insiders are more concerned with next offseason, when goaltender Braden Holtby’s contract expires, leaving him an unrestricted free agent and possibly clearing the way for his exit from Washington.

What They Would Lose

Holtby signed his current deal in 2015, worth $30.5 million over five seasons. The contract’s average annual value of $6.1 million makes him the fifth-most expensive of all Capitals, and the eighth-highest paid goaltender in the league in terms of average annual value – between Connor Hellebuyck and Corey Crawford.

Washington Capitals Braden Holtb
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

After the 2017-18 season, those figures would have looked not only justified, but underwhelming. He recovered from a disappointing regular season, one where he posted his weakest statistics to date, to lead the Capitals to the championship. Were it not for Holtby’s brilliance minding the net throughout the playoffs, including his now-famous stick save on Alex Tuch in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals would not have a Stanley Cup in their trophy room today.

Holtby’s now-famous save. Footage courtesy of NBC Sports.

While the team failed to repeat as champions the following year, Holtby’s performance improved in many areas, including shutouts (three in 2018-19, none the previous year), save percentage (SV%) (2017-18: .907, 2018-19: .911), and goals-against average (GAA) (2017-18: 2.99, 2018-19: 2.82).

The Bobrovsky Question

The market value for goaltenders may have jumped following Sergei Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70-million deal with the Panthers, the same team that snatched Connolly on Monday. Conventional wisdom dictates that if Holtby can put on a good enough performance in 2019-20, he may have enough leverage to demand a similar contract, one which the Capitals may not be as willing to pay.

From left: Anton Stralman, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Noel Acciari
Sergei Bobrovsky, pictured second from left, amongst the Florida Panthers’ free agent signings this month. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The two goaltenders are directly comparable as far as their regular season statistics are concerned – Holtby with a GAA of 2.47, a .919 SV%, and 35 career shutouts, vs. Bobrovsky’s GAA of 2.46, a SV% of .918, and 33 shutouts. However, in the postseason, there may be no more reliable goaltender than Holtby. Among all active goaltenders, his 2.09 GAA is the best in the league, and he ranks third among active goaltenders in save percentage, trailing only Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop.

When asked about the goaltender situation, MacLellan did little more than tip his cap as to who he really thought was more valuable.

“They look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Sergei Bobrovsky
Former Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, now a Florida Panther after receiving a $70-million payday that may have turned heads in Washington (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Of course, everything depends on how each goaltender performs next season. While Holtby has consistently delivered good results for Washington, he is prone to falling into prolonged slumps. One such example came in February and March of 2018, a stretch where he posted a SV% of .878 and a pitiful 4.32 GAA, leading to a temporary replacement by Philipp Grubauer. If Holtby can avoid such lapses next season, he may have the leverage to demand a blockbuster deal in the ballpark of what Bobrovsky received.

The real question is, would the Capitals pay up?

Who’s in the Pipeline?

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.

Lost among the free agent gains and losses on July 1 was the re-signing of goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who led the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, to a division title in 2018-19. Vanecek won 21 of his 38 starts, registering a GAA of 2.62 and a SV% of .907.

Vitek Vanecek playing for the Czech national team in 2015.
Vitek Vanecek playing for the Czech national team in 2015. (THW Archives)

Over the season, he split his starts with highly-touted prospect Ilya Samsonov, whose stats don’t look nearly as impressive at first glance, with his SV% at .898 in 37 starts. However, this ignores the Bears’ dismal start to the season and furious finish to reach the AHL playoffs. Samsonov improved dramatically down the stretch, winning 15 of 20 starts while registering a GAA of 1.78.

The goaltender rotation continued, even through their first-round playoff series win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, all the way to their season-ending sweep at the hands of the eventual Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers.

“If I played well, then he needed to play well,” Samsonov said in Russian to the Washington Post about his competition with Vanecek. “And if he played well, then I needed to play even better. It was a really good, healthy competition.” (from ‘Ilya Samsonov, Capitals’ top prospect and goalie of the future, finds his footing in Hershey,’ The Washington Post – 5/8/19)

Ilya Samsonov
Ilya Samsonov during a 2016 KHL game with Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Photo: Elena Rusko,

The competition could well extend into the big league, as the two battle to stake out a future roster spot on a team that only has so many to hand out. Also on the Capitals’ roster is backup Pheonix Copley, the only goaltender other than Holtby to have played in an NHL game. In backup duty, Copley posted a record of 16-7-3, with a GAA of 2.90.

Copley is still under contract through 2022, at which point he also becomes an unrestricted free agent.

In the Short Term

For now, all goaltending coach Scott Murray can worry about is next season. Barring a trade, an injury or a severe drop in form, Braden Holtby’s place as the starting goalie is assured.

Washington Capitals Pheonix Copley
Washington Capitals goalie Pheonix Copley (AP Photo/Jim Mone, file)

Not so assured, however, is the status of Holtby’s backup. A closer look at Pheonix Copley’s impressive win/loss record reveals some deficiencies in his game. In seven of his 16 wins, Copley allowed three or more goals. These numbers betray a goaltender lucky to be around a team who can bail him out, and never was this clearer than their Feb. 24 encounter with the New York Rangers at home. The Capitals squeaked by with a 6-5 overtime win, Copley allowing all five Rangers goals.

At the same time in Hershey, Vanecek and Samsonov traded the starting role from game to game and pushed each other to become better, driving their team into the Calder Cup Playoffs. The trouble is, choosing either to back-up Holtby is a crap shoot. While Vanecek was consistently top-tier and Samsonov got hot toward the end of the season, they were equally inept in the second round against the Charlotte Checkers. It may still be early in their careers and the Bears were not expected to beat the eventual league champions, but perhaps another half-season of experience is necessary to evaluate their readiness.

Whatever the case, these players are the three aces the Capitals hold in case the 2019-20 season is truly Holtby’s last in Washington.