ARLINGTON — One of the biggest storylines for the Capitals this season is off the ice despite a fantastic start on it.
Nicklas Backstrom has been a staple in Washington since 2007. He is the third-longest tenured athlete in the city behind Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and teammate Alex Ovechkin. And he is a pending free agent.
Not much has changed on that front, according to Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. The two sides have had talks since training camp. But there’s been no breakthrough - yet.
“Business is business,” general manager Brian MacLellan told NBC Sports Washington on Tuesday. “But this is a little more than business.”
An interesting nugget: Backstrom is holding talks without his longtime agent Marc Levine. That scoop comes from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who mentioned it in passing on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday.
“I would think that would probably be a good sign for the player and the team that they feel they can get something done together,” Friedman said.
The Capitals have a history here. Alex Ovechkin signed his 13-year, $124 million deal in 2008 with his mother doing the bulk of the negotiating. That could have saved him up to $6 million over the course of the contract depending on agent fees.
Backstrom followed Ovechkin’s lead 16 months later and signed his own long-term deal after the 2010 season that kept the two in Washington for the majority of their careers. Backstrom is up after this season. Ovechkin has two years remaining after this one.
MacLellan didn’t want to comment on negotiations other than to say the two sides are talking and said we’d have to ask Backstrom himself about his agent situation. That’s not possible right now with Backstrom still nursing an upper-body injury and unavailable to reporters. He expects to be back by the start of the Capitals’ four-game road trip starting Saturday in Detroit and continuing with three games in California.
But while it appears status quo with what MacLellan and Backstrom each said before the season about contract talks, that is a good sign as Friedman noted.
“I don't have a hard spot that it has to be done or anything to be done,” MacLellan told reporters in a group chat on Tuesday. “I think we just continue to discuss, if something makes sense we can pursue it.”
Backstrom ranks fifth all-time in games played in franchise history (918) and fourth in goals (235). He leads in assist (656) and is second in points (891). He is on pace to make the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Even at age 32, this is a heart-and-soul player who you want to keep around, who is beloved in the city for his dry sense of humor and his years of service to the club. And, of course, for helping bring a Stanley Cup to Washington for the first time.
The whole thing is complicated, of course, because Washington is tight against the NHL salary cap and goalie Braden Holtby is also a pending free agent. But MacLellan is far from ready to say the Capitals must choose one or the other. There are other ways to clear cap space.
Defenseman Radko Gudas is a free agent, too ($2.345 million). The salary cap should increase, though no one knows yet by how much for sure until June. And you can always trade another roster player to clear space.
That’s a lot of moving parts between now and then. The Capitals should get Backstrom done as soon as possible – maybe a seven or eight-year deal to lower the cap hit. Then figure out the rest later. It’s a risk to go that long because of his age and a serious jigsaw puzzle for MacLellan right now. He’s trying to fit all these pieces together. But Backstrom is the first one that needs to be put into place. He’s done too much for the Capitals to see him end up in another uniform.
“It's tough to say what the cap is going to be and it's tough to say what other personnel decisions you can make,” MacLellan said. “We're projecting something here that's difficult to project.”
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