For the past six seasons, whenever the calendar rolled over to July 1st, most Vancouver Canucks fans held their breath and waited to see what future salary cap havoc GM Jim Benning would wreak. Since signing Radim Vrbata to a bargain deal in 2014, Benning has been on a horrendous run of big-ticket UFAs, including, (in order and with no omissions) Loui Eriksson, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Tyler Myers, and Micheal Ferland.
This year, however, the Free Agent Frenzy fell on October 9 instead, and perhaps that’s made all the difference.
As of this writing, Benning has only signed one unrestricted free agent, 31-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby. According to Puckpedia, Holtby joined the Canucks for a term of two years at an annual cap hit of $4.3 million. The contract also includes a four-team no-trade clause.
As far as Benning era UFA signings go, this one’s a masterclass in negotiation.
First and foremost is the term. Two years is just about perfect for Vancouver’s purpose, which is insulating Thatcher Demko as he becomes the team’s established starter. The highest amount of games Demko has played at any level is 46, so he’s going to need someone else to eat at least 40% of the starts next year — and quite possibly the one after that — as he adjusts to a starter’s workload. That’s doubly true in a season that seems destined to feature a condensed schedule.
In 2020/21, Holtby will serve as a 1B. By 2021/22, he might be an expensive backup, but one still expected to play at least 25% of the games, and probably more. Then he’s out of the way, and the Demko Era can begin in earnest.
Speaking of which, it’s already apparent that Holtby isn’t just interested in backing Demko up, but in mentoring him as well. As per Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre, one of the first things Holtby did upon finalizing his contract was ask for Demko’s phone number.
One of the first things Braden Holtby did after signing with Canucks was ask for Thatcher Demko’s phone number. Holtby has to perform, but sounds like he’s going to be good teammate/mentor.
— Iain MacIntyre (@imacSportsnet) October 9, 2020
And as far as mentors go, Demko could do a lot worse. Not only is Holtby universally regarded as a wonderful human being, he has recent experience guiding another young netminder into the starter’s role in Ilya Samsonov.
On the subject of recent experience, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the fact that Holtby is only three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Championship. Surely, that’s some experience that Demko can benefit from.
That Cup ring brings us to the contract’s salary. Given Holtby’s .897 save percentage last season, it may seem a little steep at first, but it’s also decidedly below market, especially for a UFA. It’s an average quite similar to contracts that analogous goaltenders like Antti Raanta, Pekka Rinne, and Darcy Kuemper have signed in recent years, with a key difference being that all were re-upping with their teams and not subject to the free market.
Last offseason, the 31-year-old Semyon Varlamov joined the Islanders as a UFA for four years at $5 million, and Holtby arguably has the superior track record.
A track record that, again, includes a Stanley Cup. Ask the Ottawa Senators — who just gave Matt Murray $6.25 million for four years — how much extra you usually have to pay for Cup experience.
With Demko only due a shade over $1 million next season, this signing also gives the Canucks one of the cheapest competitive goaltending tandems in the league at slightly less that $5.305 million. Sure, that will jump up when Vancouver extends Demko next offseason, but a costly crease will also be more digestible by then with other contracts — like Brandon Sutter’s — out of the way.
Take notice, too, of the clever way in which the contract has been structured. Holtby will earn just $2.9 million in 2020/21 and then $5.7 million in 2021/22. This backloading makes Holtby an undesirable pickup for the Seattle Kraken, thus granting him a degree of expansion protection —without having to hand him a NMC, or anything more than a modified NTC.
If the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and Holtby flames out in Vancouver — or his cap hit proves too burdensome in the 2021 offseason — it’s a very good thing that his contract is eminently buyout-able, as it contains no signing bonuses. Buying Holtby out in 2021 would incur a penalty of just $500,000 the next season and $1.9 million the season after, which is conveniently the exact same time Roberto Luongo comes off the books.
But that’s the worst-case scenario. In all likelihood, Holtby will rebound at least partially from his last campaign and provide more-than-adequate support for Demko, and there’s the odd chance he’ll fully regain his past glory. That Holtby cited goaltending coach Ian Clark as a “major selling point” in his decision to come to Vancouver is certainly reason for optimism.
Clark’s apparent role in the Canucks’ sales pitch is yet another sign of some shrewd, nigh-out-of-character negotiating from Benning.
On that note, one also hopes that Vancouver was pitched to Holtby as a strong cultural fit, because that much is definitely true. Holtby and his spouse have long been outspoken on social issues, and his particular advocacy for LGBTQ rights and inclusion are well-known. Where better for him to land than the most progressive city in the NHL?
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) June 8, 2019
All in all, Canucks fans can breathe a sigh of relief, because it looks like Benning has come away with his best UFA signing in six years.
But you can forgive them if they also hope he puts down the phone for a little while now.