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Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom is the man who makes Alex Ovechkin go

Based on his success supplying Alex Ovechkin with the puck, Nicklas Backstrom (19) can be expected to sign a large contract extension.
Based on his success supplying Alex Ovechkin with the puck, Nicklas Backstrom (19) can be expected to sign a large contract extension. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

For the past two seasons, Nicklas Backstrom's primary responsibility with the Washington Capitals has been to get the puck to Alex Ovechkin, then get out of the way.

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It's a routine both players have down pat. The 21-year-old Swede is a big reason Ovechkin is hockey's most prolific goal-scorer -- just ask Ovechkin.

"He's a so-so guy, a so-so player," Ovechkin said in the Capitals' dressing room Wednesday, laughing and raising his voice just loud enough to make sure Backstrom heard him. "No, he's good. He's maturing as a player. Right now, you can see him growing up. If I play without him, maybe I don't get too many points, maybe I don't get too many goals."

Through the first eight games of his third season, Backstrom has two goals and nine assists -- four on Ovechkin goals -- and is on pace to notch a career-high 112 points to become only the second Capitals center to reach the 100-point plateau. (Dennis Maruk notched 136 in 1981-82.)

Last season, Backstrom didn't record his first goal and multipoint game until Nov. 12 en route to a strong finish that saw him end up with 22 goals and 88 points, the 10th-highest total in the league.

The potential for a marked increase in points this season isn't the only reason Backstrom could find himself in the headlines over the next eight months. In February, the slick passer is expected to start for Sweden in the Vancouver Olympic Games. He's also expected to sign a big contract extension.

How big, though, is the question.

Money matters

Both Backstrom and General Manager George McPhee acknowledged that the sides have had preliminary discussions but declined to discuss specifics. This much, however, is clear: If Backstrom can build on his sizzling start and continue to be the guy who makes Ovechkin go, his price tag is only going to go up.

Based on the types of contracts other young centers have received recently, it would make sense for Backstrom's extension to fall somewhere between the five-year, $26.625 million deal that Ryan Getzlaf signed with Anaheim and the seven-year, $47.6 million contract Anze Kopitar signed with Los Angeles. Another possibility is for Backstrom to accept a smaller annual salary for the security of a long-term deal, such as the 12-year, $69 million extension Mike Richards signed with Philadelphia.

A Richards-sized deal would ensure that Ovechkin and Backstrom remain together for the entirety of their primes. It's also possible the team will ask Backstrom to consider something else: The size of his contract could impact their ability to retain Alexander Semin, who also is set to be a restricted free agent next summer.

"We'll see what happens," Backstrom said. "I still have [this] year on my contract. All I can say is I'm happy to play for the Capitals. I like the city and it's a great group of guys here. I'm just focused on this season. If they want to sign me, that's great."

McPhee said: "That's next year. We're in this year right now."


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