Since practically the start of the salary cap era, NHL free agency has been more or less synonymous with bad deals. Teams drop six to seven years and a large cap hit on some third liner because they won a Stanley Cup or a well respected veteran due to having “leadership” or other “intangibles.” Those same teams come to regret those signings only a few years later, if not sooner.
For the pessimists among Dallas Stars fans, the above description lends itself perfectly to Ryan Suter’s new contract, which my colleague David Castillo broke down here. But even if you hated the Suter deal, know this: it may not be the worst move Dallas made on Wednesday.
That distinction could belong to signing goaltender Braden Holtby to a one year, $2 million 0deal. At first glance, it doesn’t seem bad — it’s cheap, lasts only one season, and lands Dallas a former Vezina Trophy winner. But when you start to dig deeper at what Holtby brings to Dallas and the subsequent roster ramifications, it doesn’t look pretty.
Let’s start with an assumption: the Dallas Stars do not expect Ben Bishop to play for them again, at least not for the upcoming (regular) season. If they did, it would be hard to justify bringing on a fourth goaltender, in addition to Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and Jake Oettinger. The far more sensible approach would have been the one they took last offseason, in which they stuck with Khudobin and Oettinger while waiting for Bishop to get healthy. So even if the door isn’t shut on a Bishop comeback, the Stars certainly aren’t expecting it.
With Bishop out of the picture, the Stars still had two NHL goalies on the roster. Yet Khudobin is coming off of a down year, and Oettinger is still a young goaltender. It’s reasonable that the Stars wanted to add a goaltender for insurance. The issue at hand is that they chose Holtby to be that goaltender.
Below are the three goaltender’s statistics from the past season — courtesy of Hockey Reference — with the leader of each stat highlighted.
First, let’s compare the two Stars goaltenders. Before the season, one of my bold predictions for the Stars was that Oettinger would statistically outperform Khudobin in at least three of the following four categories: Save Percentage (SV%), Quality Start Percentage (QS%), Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), and Goalie Point Shares (GPS).
While I was technically incorrect — he had a better SV% and GSAA but tied in GPS — Oettinger still outperformed Khudobin as a whole. The veteran had a higher QS% as a result of five more Quality Starts, but he also had five more Really Bad Starts (RBS). Oettinger also had a better Goals Allowed Percentage (GA%), plus a better win percentage among games played. Also of note is that Khudobin started eight more games than Oettinger and was relieved in five of them — Oettinger was meanwhile never benched.
All of which is to say that Oettinger had a solid, though not spectacular, year while Khudobin struggled. Now compare them to Holtby’s season, whose numbers make Khudobin look like an all-star by comparison. To put it bluntly: if a player gets bought out of a two-year contract, that single season must have gone really, really bad.
Of course, “goaltending is voodoo” (or so everyone says), and down years are a thing. For instance, Khudobin underwent surgery in the offseason in addition to contracting COVID-19, which the goaltender said notably impacted his stamina and performance. Though he is 35 years old, a bounce back year after an offseason of rest isn’t out of the question for the Russian goaltender.
But when it comes to Holtby, this past season wasn’t just a “down year.” After all, the Vancouver Canucks signed him to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million with the expectation that he would bounce back from his previous season with the Washington Capitals. Here’s a look at Holtby’s statistics over the past seven years:
As you can see, Holtby has been very, very bad these past two seasons. But his decline didn’t start there — after three years at the top of the goaltending world, which included his Vezina Trophy and two other top four finishes, Holtby had a very notable drop off in the 2017-18 season. In fact, his poor performance led the Capitals to start Philipp Grubauer to begin the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Of course, he was back in net just two games later before proceeding to help the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup. Have no doubt, that was a very strong playoff showing from Holtby, who seemed to have returned to form. Unfortunately it proved to be a flash in the pan — his regular season numbers for the next year improved, but only slightly, and Holtby fell flat as the Capitals were eliminated in Round 1 of the subsequent playoffs. Cue his disastrous final season in Washington, followed by an even worse one in Vancouver.
All of which is to say that Holtby is not a goaltender who’s coming off a “down year.” In contrast, he has been on the decline for several seasons now, and shows no signs of suddenly reversing course. Dallas supposedly signed Holtby because they were not comfortable with a Khudobin/Oettinger tandem. So then why add a goaltender who is clearly worse than both of them?
To further throw fire on things, it is far more likely than not that Holtby takes the place of Oettinger, not Khudobin, even though the rookie outperformed both veterans last season. In his press conference on Wednesday, Stars general manager Jim Nill said the starting position was up for grabs, and that he hoped Oettinger would come in and do his best to win the number one job. But let’s be honest — the Stars have a goalie who took them to the Stanley Cup Final in Khudobin and a shiny new veteran acquisition in Holtby. Meanwhile, Oettinger is still young and, more importantly, waiver-exempt.
Is there any real opportunity for Oettinger to prove he should be “the guy” for Dallas in just training camp and the preseason? It’s far more likely that he is sent down to the AHL to start for the Texas Stars while Dallas opts for a Khudobin/Holtby tandem.
At that point, how does Oettinger get called up barring injury? Every year, teams sign lower-end veterans to cheap deals. And every year, fans claim the low investment means teams won’t mind waiving the veteran if they struggle and they feel a younger player might fare better. Now think about how many times that has actually happened (in Dallas, anyway.)
This screams to me the Stars’ perceived strategy of “sign a veteran stopgap to inexplicably hold back an already capable young player.” After all, if Holtby or Khudobin struggle, they could just give more starts to the other. Meanwhile, if they both falter, then calling up Oettinger would mean trusting him with the starting role. And if they don’t trust him enough to be “a guy” in a tandem, then why would they trust he can be “the guy” on his own?
Not to mention we haven’t even begun to dig into the salary cap ramifications. Yes, $2 million is cheap in a vacuum. But now compare that to a player who is not only better, but also costs just $950,000. That extra million might not seem like a lot, but in a flat cap world, it means everything. That’s the cost of adding another (or better) bottom six forward to the lineup, or re-signing Jamie Oleksiak instead of grabbing Ryan Suter. Maybe it could have been kept in the back pocket for a mid-season trade in addition to the LTIR space gained from Bishop.
Furthermore, Oettinger is still young, and thus has more potential to improve and further outplay his cap hit. Skeptics will point out Carter Hart’s horrendous 2020-21 season as a cautionary tale for young goaltenders, but what about Andrei Vasilevskiy? Oettinger has similar numbers to the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner’s first few seasons in the NHL before he took the starter role, and he was even younger than Oettinger! As I’ve written before, with the Stars’ strong defensive system, Oettinger has a chance to blossom in Dallas. He arguably proved that potential already last season.
Maybe this is all for naught. Perhaps Nill will end up trading Khudobin and run with an Oettinger/Holtby tandem instead, saving the team $3.33 million this year and next. Or what if one of Khudobin or Oettinger gets injured, and having Holtby prevents an Adam Scheel or Colton Point call-up?
Those are sounds reasons to add an NHL caliber goaltender. The issue is that I’m not even sure Holtby will be NHL caliber this season. Despite his past accolades, he has been on the decline for several seasons now, and is statistically the worst performing goalie on the roster. That’s hardly the kind of guy you bring in to help stabilize your crease, and certainly not for anything more than league minimum.
I like Braden Holtby the person — I mean, the man has two pet tortoises. But Braden Holtby the hockey player? If the Stars’ choices were between signing him or no one at all, I would have picked the latter.
Oettinger deserves the chance to prove last year’s NHL performance was not a fluke — here’s hoping the Stars still give it to him.