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Why taking Braden Holtby to arbitration could cost the Caps dearly

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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[Update July 21 at 11:30 a.m.]: The Washington Capitals and goalie Braden Holtby are far apart as they head toward Thursday’s arbitration hearing. Tim Wharnsby, a Thomson-Reuters and CBC Sports contributor, reports Holtby is asking for $8 million per year, while the Capitals are offering $5.1 million. The team has asked for a one-year contract.

Braden Holtby had a spectacular 2014-15 campaign in net for Washington, finishing fourth in the Vezina Trophy voting after going 41-20-10 with a .923 save percentage and nine shutouts.

The 25-year-old netminder appeared in a career-high 73 games during the regular season, the most of any NHL netminder in 2014-15, and tied for the most ever by a Washington Capitals’ goalie (Olie Kolzig, 1999-00). Holtby also led all goalies in minutes played, shots faced, and saves, plus finished tied for second in shutouts and seventh in save percentage during the regular season.

In the playoffs, Holtby went 6-7, stopping 389 of the 412 shots he faced (.944 save percentage), giving him the fifth highest playoff save percentage among netminders facing at least 300 shots.

But Holtby is still without a contract, and the sides seem far enough apart that arbitration is a real possibility:

The Capitals’ offer to Holtby — the 25-year-old who tied franchise records for games played, wins and shutouts last season and finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting — has maxed in the mid-$5 million range, while Holtby’s team has countered around $1 million higher, according to an individual with knowledge of the situation.
I think we’ve made an aggressive offer with Holtby, hoping to get it done sooner than later,” MacLellan said. “I like what we’ve offered. We’ve offered a term deal with a good salary. The total dollars is pretty significant. Unfortunately, I guess you play it out. If you’ve got to go to arb, you’ve got to go to arb. It’s part of the process.”

If it does get that far, Holtby has a strong case for a salary of $6.5 million or more.

Over the first five years of their career, the player most similar to Holtby in terms of overall statistics is Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.

Holtby has a 101-51-18 record over 170 games started, Rinne is 95-54-18 over 167 starts. Holtby has posted a save percentage of .921 over 5,166 shots faced, Rinne has saved 92 percent of 4,929 shots faced. Holtby has produced 35.6 goalie point shares, an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player because of his play in goal, Rinne 34.6.

Rinne singed a seven-year, $49 million contract in 2012, which would be equal to a $7.1 million average annual value in today’s dollars — quite a bit larger than either Holtby or the franchise is reportedly discussing.

If we look at just this past season, here are the goalies since the 2005-06 season who have similar stats in the same age (24 to 26 years old) and experience (years four to six) range as Holtby, and their current contract status:

  • Cam Ward, $6.3 million per year, six-year term — $7.6 million in today’s dollars
  • Jonathan Quick, $5.8 million per year, 10-year term — $6.4 million in today’s dollars
  • Henrik Lundqvist, $8.5 million per year, seven-year term — $10.7 million in today’s dollars
  • Jimmy Howard, $5.3 million per year, six-year term — $6.7 million in today’s dollars

But once the arbitration briefs are filed, the only comparable players that can be used are other restricted free agents in their platform year, the year they were eligible for arbitration. This too works in Holtby’s favor, as there are three strong comparables his camp can use: Semyon Varlamov, Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Varlamov was a restricted free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season, where he went 41-14-6 with a .927 save percentage, posting two shutouts and giving his club 44 quality starts out of 60 games played. He signed a five-year contract for $29 million, giving him an average annual value of $5.9 million per season. With the cap increasing to $71.4 million this season, that would be equivalent to a $6.6 million AAV.

Price was a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season, saving 91.6 percent of shots faced for a 26-28-11 record. He signed a six-year, $39 million contract that offseason, which in today’s dollars would be worth $7.2 per year against the cap.

Bobrovsky, a former Vezina winner, went 30-17-3 with a .918 save percentage this past season and was rewarded with a four-year contract extension worth $29.7 million, making him the second-highest paid NHL goalie behind Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

It is clear Holtby deserves at least $6 million per year based on his performance to date and what the market is paying. An arbiter is likely to see it that way, too.