October 23, 2014

Goalie dilemma: Halak’s success raises offseason questions for Caps

In 2012, a 22-year-old goalie with only 21 games of NHL experience managed to lead a seventh place team over the defending champions in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

That goalie was Braden Holtby and his sterling .935 save percentage during that postseason run had the Washington Capitals within one game of the conference finals. Though the team’s playoffs hopes were dashed yet again, the collective feeling around D.C. was satisfaction over the fact that at least now, the Caps had their goalie.

Two inconsistent seasons later, the Caps’ future in net doesn’t seem so certain.

Holtby’s play has been incredibly erratic the past two seasons. He has shown flashes of the brilliance we saw in 2012, but also has a tendency to let in soft goals. Fans aren’t the only ones concerned as highlighted by general manager George McPhee’s trade for Jaroslav Halak.

Halak has played well since coming to D.C. and as a result has started in nine of the Caps’ 12 games since his acquisition. So with the team in desperate need of points to make the playoffs, McPhee traded for another goalie and Oates turned to him three out of every four games.

You can see why there may be some questions.

Halak is a free agent at the end of the season. According to capgeek.com his salary is $4.5 million. At 28 years old, he’s going to want a sizable contract somewhere in that range and all indications are that he will test free agency. Keeping him around will therefore be expensive.

It would also most likely mean trading either Holtby or Philipp Grubauer.

When Grubauer was called up in the winter thanks to an injury to Michal Neuvirth, he showed that he is just about ready for the NHL. Having three NHL goalies is not a good situation for anyone involved. If the Caps decided to bring back Halak or bring in another free agent, they would have to ship off one of the two incumbents to make room.

If the team was so quick to turn to someone else when they needed the points, why would they suddenly feel good about handing the reins back to Holtby? Wouldn’t it make sense to trade him?

Before you kick Holtby out the door, however, remember that he is still 24 years old. He’s not old and worn out, he’s young and still developing. Goalie coach Olaf Kolzig also is coaching the team’s goalies to play deeper in net this season, meaning Holtby, a usually aggressive goalie had to learn a new style of play. (LINK!!!!!!!)

One could easily argue that it is too soon to give up on Holtby.

Whatever the Caps decide will likely depend on how they finish the season and who is making the decisions.

It would be hard to deny Halak’s impact if the Caps manage to make the playoffs. Earlier in the season, according to analyst Joe Micheletti, McPhee said he felt inconsistent goaltending has cost the team 10 points.

If Halak can orchestrate a run to the playoffs, the Caps will have to at least explore the possibility of either bringing Halak back or bringing in another goalie through a trade or free agency to find more consistency in net.

McPhee, however, like most if not all general managers is partial to his own prospects. Given that he drafted both Holtby and Grbauer, McPhee would be loath to give up on either and turn the team over to a newcomer in net. It doesn’t mean he won’t, as we’ve seen Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth traded away, but it does mean that McPhee would be more reluctant to do so than another general manager.

It has been widely speculated, however, that McPhee will not return after this season. Though every decision he has made in 2013-14 seems to indicate otherwise, a change in general manager is always possible in the NHL.

A new general manager would bring a new perspective to the team’s goalie situation. He may see a team that was inconsistent in net all season, played better after trading for Halak, and conclude that the team therefore needs a new netminder.

After the 2012 playoffs, Caps fans assumed Holtby would be the team’s starting goalie, but that doesn’t mean people around the NHL felt the same way. The new general manager could be someone who never liked Holtby and felt 2012 was a fluke or it could be someone who likes him just as much as McPhee. We don’t know.

The point is that with a new general manager, Holtby won’t get the same benefit of the doubt as he would from someone who drafted him and was here to experience what he did in that first postseason run.

If you’re a Holtby fan, you want McPhee to stick around.

Of course all of this depends on who the next general manager turns out to be. The bottom line is that the Caps have three goalies right now and only room for two. At least one won’t be around next season. Who will be left standing?

About J.J. Regan

JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow JJ on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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