The Washington Capitals compiled a 9-2-3 record in the month of October, setting a franchise record for points (21) and tying the franchise record for wins. They became the second team in NHL history to record seven road wins in a single month.
While there seems to be a growing cohesion among the players on the ice, there are still important issues off the ice that could cause future fissions. Namely, the decision to sign goalie Braden Holtby or forward Nicklas Backstrom. Monetary constraints mean one must be cut loose from his contract. If the decision were up to us, we would sign forever-Capital Backstrom.
Both veterans enter free agency at the end of the 2019-20 season. Both players are the reason the organization collected its first Stanley Cup win in 2018. But both Holtby and Backstrom cannot continue with the Capitals. While Washington’s general manager Brian MacLellan hinted that contracts could be signed before the new season, new deals are still not inked. Right now, the only extension is the wait. While fans anxiously sit on the edge of their chairs, here are several points to ponder.
The case for Holtby is strong. His career credentials place him among hockey greats. However, his breakout in the big leagues did not foreshadow an ability to headline his team for a decade, nor did it foreshadow a reputation for stellar stops. Holtby was selected in the fourth round (93rd overall) of the 2008 NHL Draft by the Capitals. To most, that would be the steal of the century. Five of the nine goaltenders taken before him never suited up for a single NHL game.
Holtby faced the opposite fate, proving his crease-guarding prowess since his professional debut on Nov. 5, 2010. The 10-year-veteran earned a 2.49 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 430 total games played. Couched within the 262-109-43 record is 35 shutouts. Further within is the Vezina Trophy (2016), William M. Jennings Trophy (2017) and Stanley Cup (2018). By most measures, that is an airtight case.
High Risk, Low Reward
The only factor preempting the case’s closure is Holtby himself. A new arrangement for the starting goaltender hinges on money and time. Given his yearly performances, he deserves both. Given his comparison value, he requires both. Just look at the contracts afforded to the first and second-best goaltenders among active players, ranked by the NHL Network. Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning signed an eight-year, $76-million extension and Sergei Bobrovsky of the Florida Panthers inked to a seven-year, $70-million contract. Holtby will rightfully demand numbers equaling or exceeding those of other elite goaltenders.
That is a lot of money.
Unfortunately, money depends on time – and time is on no man’s side. The last five seasons reveal a worrisome trend. From 2014-2017, the Saskatchewan native notched the best numbers of his time tending net. All three seasons held 40-plus wins, tied for second-most in NHL history. One season held 48 victories, tied for the single-season NHL record. His save percentage never dipped below .922 and his goals against average never topped 2.22. There were 21 shutouts during the three-year time frame.
However, time marched on without Holtby’s consent and the seasoned professional saw his statistics decline from 2017-2019. His save percentage decreased to .907 and .911, the lowest numbers of his career. His goals against average increased to 2.99 and 2.82, two of the highest numbers of his career. There were three shutouts, all contained to one year.
The slide seeped into the 2019-20 season, wherein Holtby opened the year with a 1-1-4 record, including one showing that saw him giving up three goals on three shots against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 14. The Canadian crease watcher held a 3.55 goals against average and .888 save percentage in his total ten games of action. Luckily, these small hiccups are abnormal. However, they cannot continue and impact the larger trend. After all, an extension of seven or eight years is a long time. As the old adage warns, time is money. Two things scarce for the Capitals. Washington could forgo contract renewal with those factors taken together. In the end, the reward might be too low to risk.
There Is No Backup to Backstrom
The case for Backstrom is stronger. While Holtby has an apt apprentice in Ilya Samsonov, Backstrom is without backup. Thus, the most glaring piece of supporting evidence is his irreplaceable contribution to the Capitals. Backstrom needs no other evidence. His name alone lands him among the best names in the business.
The month of October perfectly summed his historical importance. On Oct. 10, he became the fifth player in Washington history to play in 900 games. On Oct. 23, he passed Daniel Sedin for the fifth-most assists (648) by a Swedish-born player. On Oct. 29, he tied Peter Forsberg for seventh most points all-time (885) by a Swedish-born player. To date, the 12-season veteran has 233 goals and 652 assists in 909 games played. His 885 career points lead the 2006 NHL Draft class, and his cumulative assists rank fourth in the NHL among active players. He is the 26th player in NHL history to record six-straight seasons with 50-plus assists.
Those kinds of players do not come around every day.
When the hockey gods combine two players who are without equal, the results require protection at all costs. Of course, we are talking about Ovechkin and Backstrom. They sit atop the franchise with a respective 1,229 (669 goals, 560 assists) points and 885 (233 goals, 652 assists) points. If Ovechkin wants to break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (894), he needs Backstrom by his side to assist. They are the team within the Capitals team.
Question: can you name a more iconic duo than Ovechkin and Backstrom?
Answer: you can’t.
Backstrom, along with Ovechkin, is the backbone of the Capitals for this era. His impact is immeasurable, and his contributions are limitless. The organization, players and fans need Backstrom.