It is almost impossible to imagine the Capitals without Braden Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom.
Try it. The memories come flooding back. From Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together on stage on NHL draft night in Vancouver in 2006 to Holtby making The Save against Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 and a million moments in between.
But in less than 10 months the two men, pillars of the organization, Stanley Cup winners, will be unrestricted free agents and there are plenty of hurdles left to overcome to keep them in Washington. Yet neither one appears at all worried about it.
“That stuff has never really been a thing that’s stressed me out much,” Holtby said at media day on Thursday at MedStar Iceplex. “I feel really fortunate that I get to play here anyways. We have a great team this year and that’s the exciting part. That we have another chance to win. Everything outside of that always sorts itself out. There’s people that are much smarter than me that figure that stuff out. I just try and stop the puck.”
If you were going to pick two Capitals to navigate the pitfalls of a contract year, Backstrom and Holtby are your guys. Holtby has mastered the ability to conserve mental energy during the season and push away all distractions. Just check out his post-game media sessions sometimes. There are no smiles or extra jokes. Just quick, concise answers and move on to the next task.
Backstrom, too, has made an art of avoiding the unnecessary. The game will frustrate you enough as it is. There’s no need to add to that by thinking about where he’ll be in 10 months.
“I’m honestly just going to focus on hockey. I’m not going to think about the other thing,” Backstrom said. “If it happens, it happens, but I’m just going to focus on having as good of a season as I can and win games and hopefully reach for the top again.”
Backstrom joked that he didn’t know why the reporters were even asking. He just signed a 10-year deal. That, of course, happened in 2010. He was 22 and just at the start of a career that will end with him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s forgiven if it seems like only yesterday.
But time moves fast in pro sports. He and Holtby are husbands and fathers now. Backstrom will be 32 in November. Holtby turns 30 on Monday. This upcoming contract could be the last big one for both. It would be natural if they felt that pressure, internalized it. Their teammates say that isn’t likely.
“Everyone reacts to it different. I’m not going to sit them down and ask them how they’re feeling or anything,” said defenseman John Carlson, who played out his contract in 2018 and signed an eight-year deal last summer after Washington won the Stanley Cup. “They’re both professionals who have played hockey at the highest, highest level for a long, long time. So, I can’t see it affecting them too much, those two. Maybe if it was different people, I’d have a different opinion on it.”
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan recently met with Holtby’s agent David Kaye. He hopes to do the same with Backstrom’s agent Marc Levine next week. But there’s no indication serious talks about an extension are in the works for either player right now.
The sense is the Capitals want to see where the season goes, too. It’s an older group. Alex Ovechkin has just two years left on his contract. He turns 34 next week. T.J. Oshie is 33 in December. Carlson turns 30 in January. It remains a competitive team, hopeful for a fifth straight Metropolitan Division title and the chance to again be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
But there’s no rush and Backstrom and Holtby can handle that - at least for now. That helps keep what could otherwise become a thorny issue on the back burner for two of the best players to ever play for the Capitals.
“We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. “Both guys have been a big part of our organization, a big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”
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