It’s almost comical to suggest, but the Washington Capitals cannot allow themselves to get sentimental in contract negotiations with star forward Nicklas Backstrom. In other words, overpaying for his services is a bad idea, even if the organizational inclination may be to reward Backstrom for his contributions to the team up to this point in his career.
Again, you would think arguing a team should not overpay for a player is akin to saying it’s a bad idea to speed on the highway. It’s not just the law, but common sense, right? Speeding is reckless. Nevertheless, that speeding ticket you got last year proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s common practice. People still do it. And, if you’ve got doubts that this analogy actually translates to the situation at hand, three simple words: NHL free agency.
Backstrom Heading to Free Agency
Those three words are especially relevant with Backstrom approaching unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. As a 32-year-old, Backstrom has actually delivered more than fair value for the Capitals over the course of his sophomore contract, even excluding the Stanley Cup he helped deliver to the nation’s capital.
The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone, considering the massive investment/ risk that 10-year, $67 million deal appeared at the time. Granted, all that Backstrom had delivered by that point in time, 258 points in 246 career games as a 22-year-old, made the $6.7 million cap hit seem relatively modest, even by the standards of a decade ago.
Nevertheless, Backstrom made a conscious decision to go with job security instead of a bigger payday a few years into his current deal. That was his choice. Just because it worked out extremely well for the Capitals, it doesn’t mean they owe him backpay. Any argument to the contrary implies Backstrom bet against himself over the length of the deal and lost. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone won.
Backstrom vs. Holtby
Everyone can continue to win, as this is clearly a mutually beneficial marriage between the two parties. This isn’t an argument that the Capitals should let Backstrom walk. Just the contrary. The Capitals must sign Backstrom, even if it’s at the expense of goalie Braden Holtby, who is a pending unrestricted free agent, himself. After all, Holtby’s numbers have been dwindling for a few seasons, to be generous. He’s no longer the elite goalie he was when he captured the 2016 Vezina Trophy.
Backstrom meanwhile? He’s been a steady point-per-game contributor, which still represents a great value for what the Capitals are paying him. What’s maybe most significant is how his shots per game, which can serve as an indicator of a player’s decline, are where they were during his peak years. That’s a good sign.
So, re-sign Backstrom? Hell, yeah. Just don’t overdo it, considering the cap implications, with the Caps themselves currently projected to exceed the $81.5 million ceiling by means of long-term injured reserve, according to CapFriendly. Just because you don’t envision paying Holtby as much as you are right now or at all, someone still has to play in net, right? Remember, free agency? It’s a killer.
Backstrom vs. Markov
It can be a killer for both sides. For example, reports have surfaced Backstrom has opened negotiations for a new deal, albeit without an agent. So, the lack of common sense is not necessarily exclusive to the Caps. If Backstrom does indeed pursue this route, he should understand the risks, namely that negotiations may not go how he expects.
For example, ex-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov ended up leaving for the Kontinental Hockey League a few years ago after feeling disrespected by the Habs during his negotiations without an agent. Despite the fact Markov could still contribute, general manager Marc Bergevin ultimately replaced him with an in-decline Mark Streit.
It ended as well as you would expect, with Streit’s contract terminated a few games into the season. He simply couldn’t replace Markov. Caps GM Brian MacLellan can learn from those mistakes, because, as much as loyalty had no place with the Habs for Bergevin, like Markov, Backstrom can still contribute. So, deal both in good faith and in facts.
At this point, it’s not about sheer sentiment. It’s about cold, hard logic, and, logically speaking, the Capitals still need Backstrom. Logic also works both ways though, because there will come a time when he can no longer work his magic. Just because Backstrom is still producing, it doesn’t mean he’ll continue to in the years to come.
Backstrom Must Bet on Caps Again
That alone should rule out the possibility of another decade-long deal, even if it’s meant to bring down the hit and “circumvent” the cap. If you thought the first 10-year pact was a risky, this one would be the equivalent of Russian roulette, not just in reference to Markov, but also Backstrom’s favorite triggerman, Alex Ovechkin, potentially eyeing an early retirement at the end of next season, when his contract ends.
Similarly, news that negotiations between the two sides have begun is a reminder that all good things, like Backstrom’s current deal, must come to an end. The Capitals are thankfully still a Metropolitan Division powerhouse, in large part because of Backstrom, but the Capitals wouldn’t be getting a 100-point player any longer. In fact, Backstrom arguably never was one. He has hit that high-water mark only once in his career, coincidentally or not in the season leading up to negotiations the last time around.
So, MacLellan must recognize Backstrom for who he is now. He’s a valuable player, but up until a few seasons ago so was Holtby. Don’t forget the argument that, if it comes down to it, the Caps should re-sign the former at the latter’s expense. It didn’t sound crazy when it was first mentioned a few paragraphs ago and it won’t a few years from now when Backstrom is in Holtby’s place facing unrestricted free agency anew, assuming MacLellan does the sensible thing and gives Backstrom a deal that makes sense in terms of both term and money. If the Caps want to keep contending, there’s no other way.
Backstrom has proven a lot of doubters wrong over the last decade. It would be fair to argue he’s not one of them and he wasn’t betting against himself all those years ago, but on the Caps as a whole. The smart money’s on them moving forward, only if Backstrom gets smart money from MacLellan.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.