Capitals Ignore Consequences of Overpaying Backstrom

You would have a hard time denying Washington Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom has been a $9.2 million player over the course of his current 10-year contract. The problem is the 32-year-old likely won’t be during his five-year extension, during which he will almost certainly burden the Caps with that very same cap hit.

Capitals Make Predictable Mistake

You see, the Capitals made the predictable mistake of paying Backstrom back for his success up to this point. Whether he understands the consequences of his actions or not, general manager Brian MacLellan will ultimately pay Backstrom as the player he was, not necessarily the player he is or will be just a few years from now. And those consequences? They’re far-reaching, with the Caps set to be cash-strapped and handicapped as a result.

Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals
Nicklas Backstrom – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For starters, the Capitals are right up against the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling as it stands now. Their current pay structure can’t exactly sustain the $2.5 million increase Backstrom is due starting in 2020-21. So, changes will have to be made.

Holtby vs. Samsonov

Chief among them will likely come in net, where pending-unrestricted-free-agent Braden Holtby and his $6.1 million hit have become obsolete. In and of itself, that isn’t the worst theoretical tragedy due to the emergence of backup Ilya Samsonov, who has arguably proven himself to be the superior netminder between the two all season long with a 2.11 goals-against average and .925 save percentage (compared to Holtby’s 3.02 and .899).

Braden Holtby Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, in such a scenario Samsonov gets the reins next season, effectively becoming irreplaceable. Where do you find the money to give him a raise after 2020-2021, when he will most certainly be worth more to this team than Backstrom is now?

Obviously, Samsonov won’t command the same $9.2 million hit. Make no mistake, though: He will still hold most if not all the leverage, projected to be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent who’ll quite likely have become the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie by then.

Backstrom vs. Vrana

Similarly, forward Jakub Vrana’s entry-level contract expires the same season. He already is outscoring Backstrom during a highly successful 20-goal, 38-point season. It’s admittedly an apples-and-oranges comparison, as a center like Backstrom is inherently more valuable than a winger like Vrana.

Jakub Vrana Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana – (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

However, a winger like Vrana is inherently more valuable than one like Tom Wilson, who just got a six-year, $31 million deal two summers ago. If you’re MacLellan, how would you justify offering Vrana pennies on the dollar, because there simply isn’t enough cap space to go around? By promising Vrana he’ll get his payday once he pays his dues to the organization like Backstrom did? There are several faults with that line of reasoning.

For example, Vrana was also on that 2018 Stanley Cup-champion team like Backstrom. He’s already made contributions to the team that should be repaid by MacLellan’s presumed logic. Secondly, it’s not like Backstrom took a paycut the first time around. He got paid. Well. And, yes, he ended up leaving cash on the table by going long-term with a 10-year, $67 million deal. That was his choice. It shouldn’t be Vrana or Samsonov’s problem. Truth be told, had MacLellan had more foresight, it shouldn’t have been the Caps’ problem, either.

Yet, here we are.

Backstrom vs. Skinner

Obviously, there’s an argument MacLellan simply paid Backstrom about what he would have made on the open market in July. After all, the Buffalo Sabres overpaid Jeff Skinner by giving him an eight-year, $72 million deal. Circumstances are different in each case, though.

Skinner is just 27… five years younger than Backstrom. Like it or not, he was also coming off a career, 40-goal season, hinting at the potential for at least a few more similarly productive seasons. That’s not the case with Backstrom, whose career 101-point season came in 2009-10, coincidentally his last contract year, after which he signed his latest deal.

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Furthermore, the Sabres tend to have to overpay to sign and keep talent. They’re a perennial bottom-feeder, which far from defines the Capitals. It’s almost laughable MacLellan couldn’t convince Backstrom to take somewhat of a hometown discount.

Backstrom’s of course still a game-breaking talent. He hasn’t been to the degree you would realistically think he can keep it up for another half-decade, though. He’s slowing down. And, if you don’t believe it’s at least a possibility, look no further than Holtby.

Now, the same Caps fans who believe Backstrom is justifiably getting a raise, almost inevitably at Holtby’s expense, are effectively arguing their 2016 Vezina Trophy winner has to go. There’s just not room for someone who can’t contribute like he once did, at least not at the same salary…. and especially not with a raise. He would have to take a pay cut. Exactly.