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Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Holtby and Backstrom, but is that realistic?

Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Holtby and Backstrom, but is that realistic?

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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Big spenders? How Ovechkin and Backstrom’s deals look now 9 years later

Big spenders? How Ovechkin and Backstrom’s deals look now 9 years later

In 2010, the Capitals took what looked at the time to be a major gamble. With Alex Ovechkin already signed to a 13-year contract, Washington signed center Nicklas Backstrom to a ten-year deal. The team committed in a big way to an Ovechkin-Backstrom core.

Committing 13 and 10 years to two players with major cap hits is anything but a sure thing and both deals were considered risky. Now nine years later, part of the Caps’ sustained success can be attributed to having two superstar players under contract for relatively cheap cap hits.

Ovechkin is the best player to ever wear a Capitals uniform. He is one of the greatest goal-scorers of all-time, has won three Hart Trophies as MVP and eight Rocket Richard Trophies. With a resume like that, you would expect Ovechkin to have one of the largest cap hits in the NHL. Instead, he is not even in the top-10.

Ovechkin’s cap hit of slightly over $9.5 million is just the 14th highest cap hit in the league. Of the 13 players with higher cap hits than Ovechkin, only five have won a Stanley Cup.

Backstrom is an even bigger bargain. With a cap hit of only $6.7 million, Backstrom ranks 66th behind players such as Evander Kane, William Nylander, Brent Seabrook and Ryan Kesler.

Long-term contracts are the most risky. A bad deal does not suddenly get better in time. Milan Lucic’s contract, for example, is not a bad deal because he gets $6 million per year. It’s bad year because he gets $6 million per year for another four years.

Looking back at those contracts now, the lesson is that paying superstar players superstar contracts is not what gets teams into trouble, it is overpaying the depth players.

A growing salary cap will make deals for superstar players look cheaper over time. A bad deal for a depth player will continue to look bad for the length of the contract. Ovechkin and Backstrom got good deals that just kept getting better.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

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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