Nicklas Backstrom spent the first half of 2019-20 as a pending UFA, but there was no looming danger of him departing the Washington Capitals, the only NHL team he’s ever known. He’d made it clear he wanted to re-sign there, and the interest was obviously mutual between the Caps and their all-time assists leader.
So the announcement of Backstrom’s five-year, $46-million extension Tuesday morning felt like a formality.
What feels far from a formality, fittingly one day after Ilya Samsonov’s first career shutout, is a Braden Holtby extension. If the writing had been on the wall for the franchise goaltender’s future in his UFA walk year, the Backstrom contract, coupled with Samsonov’s emergence as a rookie netminder, turned that writing on the wall into a mural.
The Backstrom contract was the easy part for GM Brian MacLellan. On top of leading the franchise in career assists with 668, Backstrom sits second all-time in points with 908. Since his rookie season, 2007-08, he has 33 assists more than any other NHLer, and he’s fifth in points behind Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin. Backstrom has played in the shadow of that quartet but, in the eyes of anyone who values consistency and longevity as much as individual accolades, Backstrom is inching toward Hall of Fame consideration.
Because he debuted in the NHL at 19, he’s not as ancient as he may seem given his lengthy list of accomplishments. When his new contract commences in 2020-21, carrying a $9.2-million AAV, he’ll still be 32, meaning he’ll be 37 at the end of the contract, which isn’t disastrous. His cerebral game is tailored to age well. He’s been a positive possession player at 5-on-5 in 12 of his 14 seasons, including five of his past six. Across the previous three seasons, among 414 forwards with 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Backstrom ranked in the top third in Corsi For per 60 and Scoring Chances For per 60. The Capitals are much better with him on the ice than without. He was 13th in total assists per 60 among that group of 414, 36th in first assists per 60 and 35th in points per 60. His two-way metrics graded out as closer to average – but that’s commendable given his quality of competition. Over the previous three seasons, his most common opponents faced include elite 200-foot centers Sean Couturier (most minutes among any forward against Backstrom at 5-on-5) and Aleksander Barkov (fourth most).
The news isn’t all good – Backstrom’s individual scoring and assist rates have reached all-time lows this season – but just because you age gracefully doesn’t mean you don’t age at all. He’ll obviously decline over the course of his new contract. It’s perceived as a necessary evil in today’s NHL to reward your greatest players for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do. Backstrom won’t be a $9.2-million player over the course of his contract, but he was for much of his last contract, during which he was a bargain.
The major question now is whether the Backstrom deal all but guarantees the Caps don’t pay Holtby for what he’s done, which includes backstopping the 2017-18 squad to the Stanley Cup and winning the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy. If the salary cap were to stay at $81.5 million for 2020-21, Washington would have $10.39 million available. It wouldn’t have any major bank-breaking RFAs to worry about – among them Travis Boyd, Brendan Leipsic and Jonas Siegenthaler. But with Ovechkin (UFA) and breakout scorer Jakub Vrana (RFA) entering the final seasons of their contracts in 2020-21, they’ll be eligible to sign extensions by July 1, 2020. They would have to take priority over Holtby, whose experience and individual accolades should allow him to command a sizable raise on his $6.1-million AAV. It's no surprise that Holtby and the Caps have postponed any contract talks until the off-season.
On top of Holtby’s contract appearing not to jive with the future cap plans for Ovechkin and Vrana, Samsonov’s play is making MacLellan’s decision easier by the day. Now 13-2-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, the best goalie prospect in the world has graduated from that distinction and crept into the Calder Trophy race. He’s bested Holtby in every category imaginable. At 5-on-5, that includes save percentage, high-danger save percentage and rebound attempts against per 60. Holtby has faced a tougher workload – roughly two shots and one high-danger shot against more than Samsonov per 60 minutes – but that doesn’t account for the gap between them. Holtby has graded out as a below-average netminder this season, ranking 51st in goals saved above average per 60 among 59 goalies with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5. Samsonov ranks seventh. It’s been no contest.
So while the Capitals celebrate one of their all-time great players with a contract announcement today, there’s a hint of bittersweetness behind it, as another one of their greatest players inches closer to the door. It’ll be sad for some Caps fans to say goodbye to Holtby – but the decision will be the right one. The Samsonov era has arrived.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.