“That was home,” Holtby told reporters on a video conference call Friday. “Just the people there that we’ve met, the team, the organization, the amount of ups and downs we’ve went through — experiences that I will never forget. It is always going to hold that special place in my family’s heart. Tough to leave any situation like it is, but that is life, and you move on and you look at the positives and you really appreciate that experience and use that experience to move forward, too.”
With the Capitals facing salary cap constraints — the upper limit for next season is $81.5 million, unchanged from this past season — they repeatedly emphasized that it would be difficult to re-sign Holtby. Instead, Washington signed Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year deal Friday, the opening day of free agency in the NHL. The 38-year-old became an unrestricted free agent when the New York Rangers bought out the final season of his seven-year contract last week.
Holtby, a 2008 fourth-round draft pick who had spent his entire 10-year NHL career in Washington, was coming off a five-year, $30.5 million deal that he signed in 2015. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 as the NHL’s top goalie and anchored the Capitals as they won the 2018 title, ending years of playoff frustration for the franchise. Last season, Holtby posted a 25-14-6 record with a .897 save percentage and 3.11 goals against average.
When the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs in August, Holtby admitted that “certainly” there was a chance it was his last game in a Capitals uniform.
“This year has been tough, kind of knowing all along that it was probably the end,” he said. “So not easy. You make a lot of really good relationships, and it was kind of a thing where I used to work with Mitch Korn, our old goalie coach in Washington. He always said this game is not a game of pucks; it’s a game of people. You really know that is true when you are in a situation like that. It is going to be tough.”
The free agent goalie market was deep this offseason with Lundqvist, Jacob Markstrom, Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, Corey Crawford and Holtby available when the offseason began.
“It was kind of strange,” Holtby said. “Coming into it or whatever, I didn’t really pay attention too much about that, but as it got down to it you realize there are a lot of really good goalies out there and we all came up at the same time. That obviously changed things.”
Holtby, who had been one of the Capitals’ longest-tenured players, had navigated the organization’s highs and lows — from frustrating, premature playoff exits to celebrating a championship with a parade down Constitution Avenue.
The Capitals knew heading into this past season that two of the most important parts of their core were in contract years: Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom. The team gave Backstrom, who negotiated his own contract, a five-year, $46 million extension in January.
At the time, General Manager Brian MacLellan said Holtby was a big part of the team’s success and was “in the mix with [Alex Ovechkin] and Nick as defining our organization.” In a statement Friday, MacLellan thanked Holtby and said the goaltender had “built a legacy both on and off the ice that will have a lasting impact on our organization and community.”
Holtby and his wife, Brandi, were active in the community, speaking up and supporting causes and organizations, marching in D.C.’s pride parade, serving as the Capitals’ “You Can Play” ambassador and speaking at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner. When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the Holtbys donated 25,000 meals through the Capital Area Food Bank. Both Braden and Brandi Holtby spoke out about systemic racism and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Friday, Holtby said he was satisfied with what he had achieved in Washington.
“We accomplished what we wanted to do there,” Holtby said. “We won a championship, and I think that’s something you can never take away. That’s something that is very important to that city, that organization and to my time there. I think that we did — we accomplished what we wanted to, and now this year coming up, it’s time to move that drive and that energy into new things.”
Now the Capitals will move on without him, welcoming new faces and turning to second-year standout Ilya Samsonov, who is expected to take over as the No. 1 goaltender.
The 23-year-old is months removed from suffering an undisclosed off-ice injury during the NHL’s pause. He did not travel with the team to Toronto for the postseason and instead remained in Washington to undergo treatment. MacLellan said Friday that Samsonov is close to 100 percent, and the general manager is optimistic he will be ready for the start of training camp, the date of which has not been set. The NHL announced Tuesday that it is targeting Jan. 1 to begin the season.
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