The Capitals announced on Saturday that they’ve signed goaltender Michal Neuvirth to a two-year contract extension. The pact will pay Neuvirth $2.4 million for the 2013-14 season and $2.6 million for the 2014-15 campaign. The salary cap hit for Washington during that span will be $2.5 million.
The Neuvirth contract comes two months after the Caps signed Braden Holtby to a two-year deal worth a total of $3.8 million. Holtby’s deal pays him $1.7 million for 2013-14 and $2 million for 2014-15 as well as a $100,000 signing bonus.
With tonight’s starting assignment in the regular season finale against the Boston Bruins, Holtby will have started 35 of Washington’s 48 games this season. Neuvirth has started just 12; rookie Philipp Grubauer got the other start.
Holtby also started all 14 of Washington’s postseason games in 2012. So today’s announcement of Neuvirth’s contract extension has a lot of amateur capologists and armchair GMs scratching their heads and wondering why the Capitals are paying their “backup” goalie more than they’re paying their No. 1 guy.
The reasons are myriad.
First, calling Neuvirth a “backup” is a bit disingenuous. Before he suffered an injury in the penultimate game of the 2011-12 regular season, Neuvirth was the guy the Caps were counting on for the Stanley Cup playoffs. He won 27 games the season before and backstopped the Caps into the second round of the playoffs in the spring of 2011.
Holtby was No. 3 on Washington’s goaltending depth chart at the time of Neuvirth’s injury, and to his credit, he came up and was brilliant throughout the playoffs. In his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Holtby came to within a single win of getting the Caps to the conference final for the first time in 14 years.
Even so, Neuvirth started seven of Washington’s first 11 games this season. That’s not the workload you’d expect from a “backup” in a short season. Holtby came on in relief of Neuvirth in Pittsburgh on Feb. 7, the team’s low point of the season. As he did in the playoffs last spring, Holtby went on a roll and made it difficult for Caps coach Adam Oates not to write his name into the starting lineup.
But Holtby playing well should not diminish Neuvirth’s value, which has been established prior to this season. In addition to the NHL achievements outlined above, Neuvirth has won two Calder Cup championships at the AHL level. Among the goaltenders he vanquished on his way to those titles are Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Vancouver’s Cory Schneider and the Kings’ Jonathan Bernier. Coming into this season, none of those goalies had more career NHL wins that Neuvirth, yet all had salaries higher than his.
The Caps have displayed a knack for drafting and developing goaltenders in recent seasons. Managing those goaltending assets after they’ve been developed is also extremely important.
Drafting and developing goaltenders has proven to be a difficult task for several teams around the NHL over the years. You can’t win without great goaltending, so if you can’t draft and develop goaltenders, you’ve got to pay the freight to get one (or even two) from somewhere else.
Tampa Bay has traded for three different NHL goaltenders – Dwayne Roloson, Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop – since New Year’s Day, 2011. The Lightning gave up promising rookie Cory Conacher, two second-round picks, a third-round pick and a first-round defenseman (Ty Wishart) who was chosen 16th overall in the 2006 NHL Draft.
Philadelphia went through all sorts of roster gyrations to get Ilya Bryzgalov signed to a mammoth nine-year contract two summers ago. The Flyers moved centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter off their roster to clear the cap space needed to sign Bryzgalov to a contract that now looks like a certain amnesty buyout candidate this summer.
St. Louis surrendered a player (Lars Eller) it had taken in the first round for Jaroslav Halak in the summer of 2010. With Montreal, Eller has become a valuable top-nine forward who is used in all situations.
Colorado swapped a first- and second-round draft choice to pry Semyon Varlamov from Washington in July of 2011. Columbus sent a second-rounder and two fourth-rounders to Philly for Sergei Bobrovsky last summer.
You get the idea. If you need a goalie, you’ll pay to get him. If you have an extra, you can expect to exact a good price from one of the teams that seem to be terminally in need of netminding. Along with Buffalo, Carolina and Los Angeles, Washington is one of only four NHL teams whose two netminders were both drafted and developed in-house.
Washington’s combined salary cap hit on Holtby and Neuvirth next season comes to $4.35 million. There are 14 teams in the NHL who are already committed to paying more than that to one goaltender next season. There are also at least five more teams – Boston, Minnesota, the New York Islanders, Phoenix and Columbus – who will almost certainly be added to that list if they end up signing their current incumbent UFA/RFA goaltender to a contract extension.
How many teams can boast of having two goaltenders under contract, both of which have won at last 22 games in an NHL regular season and have won a Stanley Cup playoff series?
Colorado can make that claim, but backup J-S Giguere is almost 36 years old. He was a Hartford Whalers draft choice. New Jersey fits the description, but Martin Brodeur is almost 41 years old and Johan Hedberg is almost 40. The Rangers meet the criteria, but backup Martin Biron is almost 36 and Henrik Lundqvist is 31.
Then there is Washington, but that’s it. Four teams, but Washington is the only one whose goalies are both aged 25 or younger.
There are a lot of teams paying goaltenders a lot of money in this league right now, so having two good ones under contract at reasonable rates is a bit of a coup, especially with the salary cap coming down this summer.
Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen carries a cap hit of $5.9 million and has never won a playoff game. Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom hits the market this summer as a UFA; his cap hit has been $6 million despite never having won a playoff series and owning a 3-8 career mark in the postseason. Edmonton is paying Devan Dubnyk $3.5 million annually. His career high in wins is 20 and his next playoff game will be his first. Schneider’s career high in wins is 20, and he has won one of the eight Stanley Cup playoff games in which he has appeared. His salary cap hit is $4 million.
Let that sink in for a bit and then let me know if you still think Neuvirth is overpaid.
Finally, the salary cap is declining by about $6 million next season. It will be more difficult for teams to assemble rosters and to re-sign their restricted and unrestricted free agents this summer. Many teams – including Washington – are already within just a few million dollars of the cap ceiling with a handful of players still to be signed.
Enterprising organizations with available cap space could be in a position to poach some restricted free agents via the offer sheet route this summer, knowing that the player’s original team simply doesn’t have the cap space to match because of the cap ceiling coming down.
Given the need and the constant demand for goaltenders, given the salary structure for less proven goaltenders than Neuvirth, and given his age and track record, why wouldn’t a team in need of a goaltender drop an offer sheet for say, $3.3 million on Neuvirth’s agent this summer?
They can’t now.
But what they can do is make a phone call to George McPhee, and offer up a package of players and/or picks commensurate to those previously proffered for goalies whose addresses have changed over the last several seasons.
Signing Neuvirth to a contract extension now puts the Capitals in the driver’s seat. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, the Caps would have been entitled to a second-round draft pick – nothing more – in compensation for the loss of Neuvirth to an RFA offer sheet at the $3.3 million level. They’d clearly be able to demand more than that for him on the trade market, and given the fact that his cap hit is now nearly a million dollars less than that offer sheet figure, they’d theoretically be able to forge an even better deal.
The Caps could enter next season with a goaltending tandem of Holtby and Neuvirth, or they could deal one of those goalies this summer and opt to bring Grubauer along at the NHL level in 2013-14. Regardless of which way they choose to go, signing Neuvirth looks like a shrewd move to me right now.