Later this week, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby is scheduled to have an arbitration hearing, and the two sides seem quite far apart from an arb asking price perspective.
The Capitals asked for a $5.1 million cap hit, because they have about $10.3 million worth of cap space remaining and still have to re-sign Marcus Johansson as well. Holtby asked for quite a lot of money — $8 million — because by a lot of standards he seems as though he's worth it.
Among active goaltenders, his save percentage across both the regular season and playoffs since 2010 ranks fourth, behind some guys you might have heard of like Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider, and Henrik Lundqvist. He is ahead of guys like Carey Price and Pekka Rinne, among other really, really good goaltenders who make a lot of money. The average goaltender in the league's top-five in terms of cap hit carries an AAV of $7.285 million. That's dragged up pretty sharply by Lundqvist's $8.5 million cap hit, because that average would be the third-highest cap hit in the league among goalies (behind only Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky). It would also be the 21st-largest overall AAV in the league.
So really, we're facing two questions here:
1) Is Braden Holtby really a top-five goaltender?
2) How much is he worth if so?
The good news about goalies is also, in some ways, bad news: It's relatively easy to compare and contrast them because we really only have one statistic through which we can evaluate them, but also, we only have one statistic through which we can evaluate them. That, of course, is save percentage, and there are very few goaltenders who do what Holtby does in terms of keeping those numbers high at his age.
In short, apart from that age-23 season (when everyone started worrying, “Oh my god is this guy even a good NHL goalie?” season of 2013-14), during which he played for an Adam Oates-coached team at its absolute worst, he has been world-class. And even when he wasn't world-class, he was still above league average overall, and among the very best at 5-on-5 anyway. In short, this is a young and apparently very, very good goaltender.
And please note, too, that 5-on-5 play is usually a better indicator of goaltender quality than overall numbers, because when you start adding in penalty kill or 5-on-6 numbers, things become a lot more dependent on systems than individual goalie skill. That is to say: Goalies have more — but obviously not total — control over their save percentage. This makes sense. At 5-on-5, even the teams with the worst defensive coverage aren't usually going to give up appreciably more goals than those with the best defenses. This comes with the acknowledgement that margins in the NHL are slim so even an extra goal against every four games can add up to a deficit of something like seven or eight points in the standings at the end of the season.
Holtby appears to be a flat-out, unequivocally dominant goaltender at 5-on-5.
Of course, context is important here because of how much tribulation there has been in Washington already over his parts-of-five-seasons career. Four different coaches have run the team in that time, and two of them were Dale Hunter and Adam Oates. You'll notice below that — small samples aside — the only coach under whom he really struggled at times was Oates, and it's important to investigate why that is. (The obvious answer, of course, is “Adam Oates is a terrible head coach.”)
Just as we look at 10-game averages for overall numbers, we can also look at 10-game averages for how well the team in front of him kept Holtby protected from high-quality chances. Want to take a guess beforehand when he faced the highest levels of medium- and high-quality chances per game?
The thing you have to say about that Oates era is boy the Capitals were terrible defensively (and hey maybe that means Ovechkin isn't a lazy bum who we should all throw trash at every day?), and that Holtby held an even somewhat respectable save percentage speaks highly of his quality. And really, we know that already. There can't be too many people who don't think Holtby is a good or perhaps even very good goalie.
The question is how he stacks up against the guys who are perceived to be the best goaltenders, especially given where he's heading in his career versus the elite netminders of this league. I think it's fair to say that the four most reliably great goalies are Rask, Rinne,Lundqvist, Carey Price, and Schneider. These guys plus the aging Roberto Luongo make up the top-seven save percentage leaders among active goalies. Rinne brings up the rear with a career save percentage of .919. So let's compare the starts to their careers (taking into account both regular-season and playoff hockey).
Obviously Holtby is trending down according to this, and fair enough. He took that decent-sized dip in the middle because of you-know-who and hasn't had enough time under Boudreau to get back to where he was or, probably, ought to be based on his talent. But to that 212-game point he's posted better career numbers than either Lundqvist or Price.
What's interesting — and not shown in the above graph because there are too many lines in there already — is that all these goalies went from high on the lefthand side to drops of varying depth in the middle, then back up again (except Lundqvist, who climbed a bit of a hill then went back down), which to me shows that they all could more or less do well enough in mop-up duty or against mostly low-end teams as a backup, but when they became bonafide starters they took a slight step back. Fair enough, and they all recovered to post higher numbers at the end than the start of their careers. Holtby is no different in this regard, and his numbers at the 212 game mark are more in line with Rask and Rinne at the top of the list than Price and Schneider in the middle.
In summary, Holtby is really, really good, and trending in the way a lot of elite goaltenders do.
Which circles back to what he's worth. The numbers show he's had the third- or fourth-best start to his career of the group, which portends good things for the future. And when comparing what he should be asking for (as a percentage of today's salary cap) versus what those guys earned on their third contracts, that's about where Holtby should fall. He is, after all, still an RFA, so saying, “He should get Lundqvist money!” is foolish unless the team plans on buying plenty of UFA years, which it clearly isn't if we're looking at arbitration in the first place.
Based on the market, even what the Capitals are offering would be good value relative to other elite goaltenders in the league. A current AAV of $5.1 million is about 7.1 percent of the cap, meaning even at the low end of what the arbitration number could be, he's doing better than his peers have in the past.
Should he be paid $8 million? Sure, the numbers are there to support it. Is he going to get anything close to that any time soon? Probably not. But he's gotta go without for at least one more season.
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