As the Capitals prepare for the upcoming season, talk of next season is already starting to take over due to the uncertainty surrounding Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom’s future. Both players are in need of new contracts and, not surprisingly, general manager Brian MacLellan would like to keep both.
“We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said at media day. “Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”
But is it realistic to keep both players? The unfortunate reality is that it’s not.
First, we have to project how much Holtby and Backstrom could sign for.
Holtby has a very close comparable with Sergei Bobrovsky who just signed a seven-year, $70 million contract. Holtby and Bobrovsky’s regular season stats are almost identical while Holtby has enjoyed much more playoff success. That means the Caps would be looking at a cap hit somewhere in the $10 million range.
For Backstrom, a player of his caliber will be able to command a sizable contract from around the league even at 32 which he will be when he hits free agency. A 34-year-old Joe Pavelski just got a contract from the Dallas Stars with a $7 million cap hit. I view Backstrom’s range to be about $7 to 8.5 million, but $7 million at an absolute minimum.
Basically, to re-sign Holtby and Backstrom will cost the team about $17 million in cap space per year at a minimum.
But wait, those guys want to stay in Washington, right? So they definitely will be willing to take less!
Don’t count on it.
“There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league too,” Holtby said at media day when asked about taking less money to stay with the Caps.
As for Backstrom, he has played the last 10 years with a cap hit of $6.7 million which is an absolute steal. Why would he take less now when he has already been taking less for a decade?
Let’s ignore the discussion of whether it is worth committing that much money to two players who are over 30 on an aging roster. The question is if the Caps have room under the cap for $17 million?
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Carl Hagelin, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Nick Jensen and Pheonix Copley are all under contract for the 2020-21 season. That’s just over $62 million in cap space committed to 10 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie. Add in Backstrom and Holtby and their potential $17 million hit and you have a cap hit of over $79 million for 11 forwards, four defensemen and two goalies. The team will still need to sign two more forwards and three more defensemen.
We do not know what the cap ceiling will be for next season, but it is not expected to climb significantly. Let’s say it goes up to $83 million. That means the Caps will have less than $4 million to sign another five players. The minimum NHL salary for next season will be $700,000. If the Caps add five players at the league minimum, they can just barely fit under the ceiling, but that obviously is not a realistic scenario for how to build a competitive roster. Anything above the league minimum the team will not be able to afford and there are only two players in the entire organization, including prospects, who will carry a cap hit of $700,000 in the 2020-21 season.
Now that is just a projection, we ultimately do not know if the salary cap could go up more, but this projection also does not take into account any of the team’s RFAs including Jonas Siegenthaler who by that point will be due a significant raise.
The bottom line is that there is no way for the Caps to afford both Holtby and Backstrom without a significant trade to free up salary. Even then, whatever extra cap room the team gains from such a trade, much of it will go to RFAs, prospects and other UFAs the team may pursue.
An extension for Holtby and Backstrom handcuffs the entire offseason and would not allow Washington to do pretty much anything else. Whatever other needs the team may have, MacLellan would not be able to afford to address.
That’s not a recipe for success.
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