Nicklas Backstrom’s new contract, and what it means for the Caps’ future

By: Joe Pohoryles

Nicklas Backstrom agreed to a five-year, $46 million extension that will keep him in Washington through the 2024-25 season. The Caps’ all-time assist leader will be 37 years old by the end of the new contract, making it the last big contract of his career, and possibly his last NHL contract entirely if he decides to retire or play in Europe at the end of it.

Backstrom negotiated the deal himself, something we rarely see today, and he still got himself a nice pay raise. With a $9.2 million average annual value, Backy will have the second-biggest cap hit on the team behind Alex Ovechkin’s $9.5 million.

This contract may not age too well by the final couple years, as it’s always risky paying a 36/37-year-old that type of money, but having Backstrom at a discount-level $6.7 million cap hit for the past 10 years makes this is a “thank you” deal to compensate for his prior services as much as it is to keep him in DC with several good years left in the tank. I have absolutely no problem with that. He deserves it, and I’d hate to see him go play for another team.

As sad as it is to think, the Caps may no longer be a contending team by the final couple years of this contract, as the team’s core continues to age and will likely face some significant turnover by that point. If that’s the case, then letting a future Hall of Famer play out his contract before transitioning to a new era seems just fine.

But I’m not worried about the 2024-25 season right now. We still have this season to go through in 2020, but the free agencies of both Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby have long been discussions throughout this year, and looking at the types of deals each guy would command, and knowing the team is so tight against the salary cap, it appeared there was only room to re-sign one.

To me, this officially signals that the end of the 2019-20 season will be the end of Holtby’s era in Washington. Looking at Backstrom and Holtby alone, their respective $6.7 million and $6.1 million cap hits come off the books next season, clearing nearly $13 million in space from those two players alone. Backstrom’s new contract will eat up over $9 million, leaving $3.6 million. Radko Gudas will also be an unrestricted free agent, so his $2.3 million hit will also likely come off the books. After some other minor moves/departures, entering next season the team is set up to have just over $11 million in cap space to share across five roster spots.

Salary Cap Distribution entering 2020-21 without Holtby vs. with Holtby re-signed

Slide one shows what the salary cap distribution should look like entering next season with five spots needed to be filled. Slide two shows what the salary cap distribution would look like if Holtby re-signed with a contract that had a $9 million AAV. That would leave just over $2 million to sign four players, which averages to $500k per player. The NHL minimum salary is $700k, and will increase to $750k in 2021. (Infographic by Joe Pohoryles)

This past summer, then-Columbus Blue Jackets’ netminder Sergei Bobrovsky entered free agency and earned a seven year, $70 million deal with the Florida Panthers. Holtby will be the same age Bobrovsky was last year. The two have extraordinarily similar career regular season stats, but Holtby has a much better postseason resume. Bobrovsky has two Vezina trophies compared to Holtby’s one, but Holtby also has a Stanley Cup. Entering this season, it appeared Holtby would receive a deal as large as Bobrovsky’s, if not larger. Taking up nearly $10 million out of $11 million available for five players just is not viable, and as you can see in the charts above, they can’t even afford an $8-9 million AAV.

Now, seeing as Holtby’s play has taken a dip, and with many believing Florida overpaid Bobrovsky (although for what it’s worth, they’re in the playoff picture for the first time in several years, thanks in part to him), it seems Holtby won’t command quite as big of a contract, but he’ll certainly want to improve on his current $6.1 million AAV, which the Caps simply will not be able to afford.

Like Backstrom, this will be Holtby’s last big contract, and as much as he has said he wants to stay in DC, it appears unlikely he’ll accept a hometown discount. And you can’t blame him for it. This is his chance to earn big bucks, and he has absolutely earned that. It will be tough to see him go, and he’ll always be a Cap in my eyes, but he may not be leaving as big a hole behind in net as was expected before.

Ironic that the news of Backstrom’s signing comes the morning after Ilya Samsonov’s first NHL shutout, but that ties to one more reason why a Holtby departure seems inevitable at this point. Samsonov has been fantastic in his first NHL season, and despite the limited experience, appears likely to take over as the team’s new No. 1 netminder in 2020-21. It would be ideal to pair him with a less expensive, quality veteran to split reps with, so Sammy ends up playing somewhere around 50 games or so rather than throwing him out there for over 60 games and burning him out, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Combine the emergence of Samsonov with the impending expansion draft for the new Seattle franchise in 2021, in which the Caps would only be able to protect one goaltender, and it appears even more unlikely Holtby stays. To sign Holtby long-term would mean leaving the goalie of the future exposed, especially if Holtby demands a no-movement clause in the deal, meaning the team would be contractually obligated to protect him.

Career stats comparison: Holtby vs. Bobrovsky (2010/11 – 2018/19)

While the two star netminders have nearly-identical regular season numbers, Holtby blows Bobrovsky out of the water when it comes to the playoffs. Bobrovsky earned a seven year, $70 million deal this past summer, setting the market for Holtby this summer. *= NHL All-Star Teams named at the end of the season (like the NFL’s All-Pro), NOT NHL All Star Game appearances. (Infographic by Joe Pohoryles)

So it appears incredibly likely Holtby is gone after this season, but what does that mean for this season? Holtby is a human being, he knows everything I detailed above – the salary cap situation, the Bobrovsky deal, Samsonov’s emergence, the expansion draft, all of it – and knowing he wants to stay in DC, obviously has emotions surrounding the situation.

Holtby, being the professional he is, will not let this new development affect his play. All I know is that the elephant in the room just grew a few sizes and is now tooting a loud horn with his trunk, and you have to wonder how that will all affect the locker room, if at all.

Holtby still has his big contract to play for, so even if he had poor character and lacked class (which is not the case at all), he would have personal reasons to not quit on the team this season. It will be interesting to see how the playing time in net will be split for the remainder of the season, and how that will affect the locker room, but hopefully it will not interfere with the bigger tasks at hand.

Backstrom is here to stay, and fans should be ecstatic even if the price tag makes you feel wary. It may mean Holtby will be gone soon, but he should turn out just fine, and so will the Caps. Hopefully Backy and Holts can help lead the team to a second Stanley Cup in three years, saluting Holts and his contributions on a high note as he secures his bag elsewhere.

(Cover Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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