With the NHL’s Olympic roster freeze in effect and the trade market on everyone’s minds, struggling and contract-strapped teams are likely to try and dump salary and expensive contracts off to contending teams chasing the Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals are buyers as opposed to sellers, a likely perennial contender and close-to-the-cap-ceiling team. With the likes of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh in similar cap territory, the Washington Capitals have neatly managed to let expiring contracts dissolve on July 1st just in time to offer big money to returning superstars or roster spots to developing talents.
According to capgeek.com, at the end of the current season over $16 million will be freed up in expiring contracts. Also, Michael Nylander’s no movement clause expires after this season, meaning he’ll be in the minors or Europe again, and his $4.875 million cap hit is only on the accountant’s books, not the Capitals’ cap books. Today the Caps are $4.035 million under the cap (with Chris Bourque called up), meaning next season there are just under $26 million before re-signing up to nine rostered skaters and one rostered goalie, free agents, or promote some young talent from Hershey and South Carolina. Top of the list of re-signees are Nicklas Backstrom, one of the best centers in the league, who is likely to take a large part of the salary cap pie next season and, we hope, beyond.
Nicklas Backstrom is a franchise player, an elite playmaking talent as good as anybody in the league. We all know that, but what is still to be seen is his greatest potential. Not even Alex Ovechkin is in his prime yet, but is considered the best player, or at least the most gifted offensive player in the world. So exactly what kind of pitch is Backstrom ready to hear from George McPhee? Nicky knows his most prolific years are ahead of him, and he’s guaranteed to reach his potential with no. 8 by his side. As a UFA in five years Backstrom could likely command at least an $8 million-a-year salary, but is he truly at home in a Washington sweater? In other words, will the Swedish Olympian potentially take a hometown discount to win a Cup with the Capitals?
When Alex Ovechkin signed his NHL-record breaking contract for $124 million in January, 2008, Ted Leonsis said he thought they would be getting the world’s greatest player at a discount in 10 years. Even though the league’s salary cap won’t increase every year during the lifetime of Ovi’s pact, his $9.5 million cap hit might well seem like a bargain the closer we get to 2012, let alone 2018.
It is hard to argue that Backstrom deserves an enormous contract at only 22 years old, but given the same forecast Leonsis gave two years ago, many would argue a long-term contract at a reasonable salary would give both the player and the team a sense of mutual commitment, as well as George McPhee some cap relief down the road.
Most other franchises with an elite winger or a world-class center don’t have the complimentary position held by another player of the same stature on their top line. Only San Jose, Vancouver, and Chicago might be exceptions. Think of Columbus, where Rick Nash, an eight-year veteran, has yet to play with a center of his own virtuoso ability. Or look at Calgary, where Jarome Iginla piles on the points year after year without an elite passer dishing him the puck like Backstrom so cleverly does with Ovi. What if these guys had their own Backstrom?
Reverse positions for a moment. If Backstrom were to hypothetically play anywhere else, even with a Nash or Iginla, is he the same player he is with Ovechkin? He is surely a point-per-game player and 20-plus goal scorer. But this season the young Swede is on pace for 35 goals and 101 points, marks you have to think he will keep eclipsing for many years to come pivoting Ovechkin. When GMGM offers an extension to Backstrom at some point before July 1st, there are two contract options: market value or franchise value. Backstrom’s market value is slightly lower than his franchise value because there is no guarantee he’ll put up the numbers he has with Ovi, with any other team. His franchise value could be north of $7 million annually, given his staggering numbers this season and steadying improvement over the course of his entry-level contract.
No. 19’s talent is a real rival to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, considered two of the best centers in the league. Both the Penguins are known for their balance and strength on the puck under intense pressure. But Backstrom is in that same class of physical play — with and without the puck — a trait he’s picked up from his wrecking ball wingman. And when it comes to puck possession, stick-handling, passing, and balance there’s no one better now than the slick Swedish center. In a couple years’ time, Backstrom will be a world-class goal-scoring center just like Crosby has become. Additionally, Backstrom has shown to be a more durable player than Crosby, Marian Gaborik, or even Alex Semin. When McPhee offers a Backstrom a contract, he knows he’s getting 80-plus games each season from his ironman in the middle.
Any big contract extension is a challenge with cap issues, and keeping the Capitals’ Cup-contending core together ranks as perhaps George McPhee’s biggest challenges as a manager being one. If Backstrom wants to win a Cup in Washington, he’ll want to resign, perhaps even for as long as Ovechkin did. There is not one reason this hockey marriage should ever end in divorce. George McPhee has to keep these two young guns together for as long as possible. There is no doubt a dynasty in the making.
Note: RFAs include Backstrom ($2.4m), Fehr ($0.772m), Gordon ($0.761m), Fleischmann ($0.725m), Scuhltz ($0.715m), Neuvrith ($0.546m); UFAs include Morrison ($1.5m), Laing ($0.500), Pothier ($2.5m), Morrisonn ($1.975m), Theodore ($4.5m)
Suggestion: Re-sign Backstrom $71.5m for 11 years
Check out this awesome video from Backstrom’s draft day: