The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby who are entering the final year of their contracts.
Will the contract situations hang over their heads all season and affect their play?
Professional athletes face pressure all the time. They have pressure to perform, pressure to make the playoffs, pressure to make a deep run and to win championships. Sometimes the greatest pressure a player can feel, however, comes when they are playing for a contract.
When you watch some of the greatest athletes in the world perform superhuman feats on the ice, it can be easy to forget that these players are also human. These are people with families. While contract numbers can be fun to play with on CapFriendly, we are also talking about people whose given career field has a limited window. They are quite literally playing for the future security of their families.
This brings us to Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, two players entering the final year of their contracts who also happen to be two of the best players on the team. Backstrom will be 32 by the end of next season and Holtby will be 30. Given their age, the next contract will likely be the last big one of their careers.
With no new update on their respective contracts and the calendar nearing August, it seems very likely, if not probably, that both players will begin the season without a new contract in hand.
One bad season or one bad injury could cause both players potentially millions of dollars. That is also tricky for the team because if the pressure of playing for their next contract messes with their heads, those are two of the team’s best players suffering rough seasons.
If Backstrom and Holtby struggle under the pressure of knowing every night they are playing for their next deals, they certainly would not be the first or last to do so. But let’s not forget who we are talking about here.
If you had to choose the two most unflappable players on the roster, Backstrom and Holtby would both be pretty high on that list. The mentally calm way in which they approach the game suggests both are well-suited to the pressures of a contract year.
While we have grouped both players into a single question as to how they will perform, both of their situations actually look very different.
Backstrom elected to go with security over money in his last contract for 10 years and $67 million. That deal has proven to be an extremely team-friendly contract. According to CapFriendly, Backstrom’s $6.7 million cap hit is only the 65th highest in the league. That’s a bargain for a future Hall-of-Famer in the prime of his career.
While he is certainly entitled to a raise, he also does not strike me as the type of player to hold the team hostage with an outrageous salary ask.
“This is all I know,” Backstrom said at the team’s breakdown day. “It’s crazy, but at the same time it’s a great feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything better from the fans and from the city of Washington.”
It is hard to imagine Backstrom and the team not being able to come to an agreement to keep him in Washington. He is still playing at a high level and, because he has never been an overly fast or overly physical player, he is likely to live up to new contract even in his mid-thirties. For him, there should be less pressure knowing he is likely to be back.
The same cannot be said for Holtby whose future in Washington is far more uncertain.
Much has been written on this topic of late and if you want a real deep-dive into why Holtby is doubtful to return to Washington, you can read my article here. To summarize, the high cost it will take to re-sign Holtby in both money and term as well as the looming Seattle expansion draft and the fact that the team’s top prospect is a goalie make it unlikely the Caps will be able to keep him. That puts even more pressure on Holtby as he faces the possibility of having to move on.
If there is one goalie who you should not worry about mentally, however, it is Holtby.
Holtby set a franchise record in April with his seventh postseason shutout. When asked what that did for his confidence he said, “Nothing. It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."
When Washington was eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in a Game 7 double-overtime loss, Holtby said afterward, “Obviously it's disappointing. It's not where we expected to be. It's a hard-fought series and they just ended up making more plays than we did.”
Regardless of whether he is ecstatic or distraught, happy or sad, you can always expect a calm, monotone response from Holtby in the locker room. This does not strike me as a player who will spend the season sweating over a contract.
To say neither player will even think of their contract situations this season would be unrealistic. They are only human. But it seems unlikely that their future contracts will have any major impact on their play because of the personality of both players plus their respective situations. Backstrom in all likelihood will remain with the Caps while Holtby, even though it appears his future will be elsewhere, probably feels a lot better about his situation after seeing Sergei Bobrovsky sign a massive $70 million deal in the offseason.
Both players are level-headed and in good spots even if they do not have contracts beyond 2020.
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