Keeping a Stanley Cup-winning team together is hard. It becomes harder when two of the core players, such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, are among the best players in the league and are advancing in years and will both require new contracts ahead of the 2021 season.
As these two enter their twilight seasons, General Manager Brian MacLellan sounds open to making sure both stay in the Washington sweater for years to come, even if it means straying from an objective valuation of their future production.
“We’re going to be sentimental with Ovi and Nicky for sure,” MacLellan said to The Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan for a recent story on the Capitals' window of contention. “Because they’ve been here forever and they’ve done what they’ve done. I think you have to be. They’ve defined this franchise. You can’t be that cold.”
Ovechkin, of course, has been paid like an elite star ever since he signed his 13-year, $124 million mega deal in 2008 but Backstrom has been a bargain for the team — he has carried a $6.7 million cap hit since inking his 10-year, $67 million deal in 2010. Given those starting figures, what might their next contracts entail? A quick look shows that being “sentimental” could cause some headaches for the Capitals when it comes to future roster construction.
Washington has to be careful handing out contracts to players who are at or beyond their 35th birthday. To prevent salary cap circumvention, the individual cap hit for a player in that group counts against the team’s cap hit regardless of whether, or where, the player is active. While that wouldn’t apply to Backstrom for his next contract, any long-term deal for Ovechkin, who turns 35 in September 2020, would be a notable leap of faith. But even committing substantial money on a short-term basis to the tandem could greatly complicate Washington’s ability to put a title-contending roster around those two should their skills start to decline. Putting aside Ovechkin’s current mastery over Father Time, that is the case for most NHLers after age 30.
Looking to the past we can find a few examples of teams who have owed a similar title-winning debt to their prominent aging stars. By then comparing those salaries as a percentage of the total salary cap we can start to see the kind of figures we might be discussing when Backstrom and Ovechkin approach free agency.
For example, the Detroit Red Wings gave star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (another outlier in the aging department) a one-year, $7.6 million deal when he was 36 before the 2006-07 season, which accounted for more than 17 percent of the team’s salary cap. Detroit did it again for the same amount a year later, only this time it took up 15 percent of the team’s cap space. The Red Wings then extended him a two-year, $14.9 million contract which covered the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, and then two more one-year deals at $6.2 million each over the next two campaigns. That last one accounting for less than 10 percent of Detroit’s available resources.
At age 36 Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche agreed to three separate one-year deals, worth $5.75 million, $6.75 million and $6 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008, respectively, with the last year’s cap hit nearly 11 percent of the total salary cap. In 2014 a 34-year-old Pavel Datsyuk and the Red Wings agreed to a three-year, $22.5 million contract, with the first year’s salary pegged at $10 million. The life of the contract, however, carried just a $7.5 million cap hit, about 10 percent of the space available in 2016-17, the last year of the deal.
Among this group, a 10th of the cap space available appears to be the standard for “sentimental” contracts but it is unknown what the actual salary cap will be at the start of the 2020-21 season, the year Backstrom becomes a free agent, or in 2021-22, the year Ovechkin’s contract expires.
If it remains the same at $79.5 million, each player could be looking at an $8 million cap hit over the subsequent years, which would leave the team approximately $18 million in cap space in 2020-21 with an additional 13 roster spots to fill and nearly $26 million in cap space a year later with 14 other vacancies. If the cap continues to rise as it has over the past few years (likely) Ovechkin and Backstrom could be looking at deals that reach closer to $9 million per year or more, depending on how sentimental the Capitals front office feels at the time of the signing.
Those figures would raise some interesting questions about both players' feelings about cutting a deal with the Caps, however. Backstrom has been providing one of the NHL’s best values while on his current contract, and it’s not unthinkable he might want to make the most of his last, best free agency offers. And it figures there would be plenty of interest in a center with his leadership and passing abilities, which could drive up his price tag. A $9 million a year salary would equate to a pay cut for Ovechkin.
Presently, the top 35-plus contracts belong to Ilya Kovalchuk (age 35, $6.25M cap hit), Patrick Marleau (38, $6.25M cap hit) and Mikko Koivu (35, $6M cap hit). None of them has topped 30 goals or 60 points in the past three NHL seasons. If Ovechkin and Backstrom continue to produce as they currently are, even building in some regression, you can bet they’ll shatter those high-water marks.
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