Can the Capitals Afford Nicklas Backstrom?

If you’ve been following the Washington Capitals this offseason, you have been inundated with questions about contracts, retirements, and the salary cap. Did Alexander Ovechkin really suggest he would retire? Can the Capitals re-sign Braden Holtby after this season? Who will the team have to cut or demote to get under the salary cap?

Flying somewhat under the radar has been center Nicklas Backstrom, whose contract also expires at the end of the 2019-20 season. It’s not surprising. The All-Star center has always let his play speak for itself. At the launch of the Capitals training camp, however, the inevitable was raised: has he had any discussion with the team about a new contract?

Looming right below that question is a myriad of uncertainties. At 31 years old, Backstrom is in the prime of his career, an asset that immediately makes any team better. Both sides have expressed that they are going to work to ensure he stays in the nation’s capital, but the subtext to the negotiations are clear: can the Capitals afford to resign him? Or, conversely, can they afford not to?

What Could Backstrom Fetch on the Open Market?

Backstrom is in the last season of a 10-year contract worth $8 million with a $6.7 million cap hit. With the Capitals’ salary-cap woes, we have to wonder what he will be seeking in salary and term and what could be offered by another team looking to add a center of his talent and experience.

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals, NHL
Backstrom led the Capitals in scoring during the 2016-17 season. (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

Even with the possibility that New Jersey Devil Taylor Hall and St. Louis Blue Alex Pietrangelo will join him in free agency, Backstrom could be the most sought-after commodity on the open market. Putting the John Tavares show from two summers ago aside, a center with his career stats and a Stanley Cup to his name doesn’t come around all that often.

What the Toronto Maple Leafs have done with their superstar trio of Tavares, Austin Matthews and Mitch Marner can be used as a benchmark for Backstrom during negotiations with the Capitals.

Backstrom’s age may make some scoff at the comparison (Marner is 22-years-old, Matthews is 21 and Tavares is 28). With the chaos of the NHL’s free agency period and Backstrom as a rare asset, would Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan risk that someone wouldn’t make Backstrom a similar offer? Is an eight-year, $9-$10 million contract out of the realm of possibilities if he hits free agency? It’s plausible.

Addition by Subtraction?

Where does that leave the Capitals? At this point, the team has zero cap space this season. Technically, they are sitting slightly above the cap and the juggling act won’t get easier for MacLellan over the next couple of years. In addition to Backstrom, teammates Holtby and Radko Gudas are also in their last year of their deals and Ovechkin’s contract expires after the 2020-21 season.

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby
Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

To be blunt, it is nearly impossible for the Capitals to pay all three Stanley Cup winners what they could fetch on the open market without sacrificing depth at almost every other position.

After signing would-be backup goaltender Phoenix Copley to a three-year extension last season and the rise of 21-year-old goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov, of the Capitals’ big-three, Holtby seems the least likely to be re-signed. That is not to say they won’t try or that Holtby won’t accept a significant hometown discount, but, barring that, it isn’t feasible for the team to try and match what other teams in search of goaltending will offer.

Letting Holtby go would not be an easy decision for the Capitals or their fans, but the expected salary and term he could receive on the open market and the rise of Samsonov, make him the most expendable. It also provides some cap relief when the team negotiates with both Backstrom and their captain, Ovechkin, one season later.

The Ovechkin Factor

There’s another factor to consider as the Capitals ponder a new contract offer for Backstrom: how re-signing him or not impacts a decision Ovechkin makes the following season. The pair have been the team’s offensive core for over a decade. They know each other well and compliment each other’s games. Would Backstrom leaving the team impact Ovechkin’s decision after the 2020-21 season?

Nicklas Backstrom (19) hoists the Stanley Cup
Backstrom with Stanley Cup (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sure, Backstrom’s departure would likely free up enough money to get a contract done with Ovechkin that would make him a Capital for the rest of his career. It’s what both sides have indicated they want. Given Ovechkin’s drive and his desire to win, however, he likely would not be happy if his longtime running mate departed.

Also, Ovechkin’s retirement remarks this summer may have been lighthearted, but was there a grain of truth to them? Would Backstrom leaving make him seriously consider hanging up his skates? No one really knows the answer to that question, but the Capitals likely don’t want to find out.

Putting Pen to Paper

When all is said and done, all signs point to the Capitals doing whatever they can to re-sign Backstrom, even if it means saying goodbye to Holtby. He is an irreplaceable asset at a position that is one of the hardest to replace in the league.

Alex Ovechkin celebrates with Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin celebrates with Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The intangibles he brings and his chemistry with Ovechkin make him too valuable to part with. Without signing Backstrom, the potential dominoes that could fall next are also too risky for the Capitals to consider.

The Capitals may not be able to keep all three of their stars, but Backstrom’s new contract will undoubtedly be the team’s number one priority this season.