The Washington Capitals have a big summer ahead, with nine players on the roster set to become restricted or unrestricted free agents, but talk already has turned to 2020, when center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby will be due new contracts. Washington can extend both players as soon as this July 1, and while Backstrom and Holtby said they would welcome that, expect the Capitals to take their time.
“They both have a year left, so we’ll talk to both of them,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “We’ll have decisions to make as we go throughout the year.”
Asked whether he would prefer to get those deals settled this summer, MacLellan said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations, and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”
The Capitals regularly encounter salary cap constraints, and keeping both Backstrom and Holtby past next season will be a challenge. Two of Washington’s most important players, both have aged well. Backstrom, 31, is coming off a campaign with 22 goals and 52 assists in 80 games, and he has finished with at least 70 points in six straight seasons. Holtby, 29, has been the Capitals’ top goaltender for five years, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and named a finalist for the award again in 2017. He played in 59 games this season and finished with a .911 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average.
“I would love that,” Holtby said when asked about the possibility of an early extension. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that, you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”
Holtby’s future in Washington is threatened by an elite goaltending prospect waiting in the wings. This past year was Ilya Samsonov’s first in the American Hockey League, and while he started slow, he got hot in the second half of the season. Through three playoff appearances with the Hershey Bears, the 22-year-old Samsonov has a 1.61 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. Earlier this season, MacLellan said he expects Samsonov to spend next season in the AHL, with Holtby and Pheonix Copley getting another year as the Capitals’ tandem in net. But that means the organization may not get to see Samsonov in NHL action before making a decision on whether to extend Holtby.
Copley got a three-year extension during this past season, so he’s under contract at a $1.1 million cap hit through 2022. Holtby’s current cap hit is $6.1 million, and what happens with Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency this summer could serve as a comparable for Holtby. Bobrovsky is a year older with similar statistics to Holtby, and Bobrovsky is expected to get a raise on his $7.425 million cap hit in free agency this summer.
“Managing a hockey team isn’t easy, and I’m not one to put my input into it,” Holtby said. “I think our group here trusts Mac and everyone involved to do what’s best for this team and this organization. And for me, it’s just making sure that I’m prepared to play every game I’m here to help this team win. Outside from that, that’s management’s area to focus on. You can only control what you can control.”
Holtby and Backstrom may not want to think ahead, but the Capitals will have to as they dole out contracts this summer. MacLellan has avoided tying up too much money or term in the depth of Washington’s roster to give the team more salary cap flexibility, and because Holtby and Backstrom are the only two players coming off the books after next season, their looming free agency will factor into what the team offers its free agents this year, especially in the case of wingers Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.
Backstrom signed his current deal in 2010, a 10-year, $67 million extension at the time. It has become a bargain with top centers now typically paid north of $8 million, and that’s what he could command a year from now. If the Capitals can’t afford to keep both Backstrom and Holtby, Backstrom is the more likely to be re-signed, something MacLellan hinted at during an interview in December.
“We’re going to be sentimental with Ovi and Nicky for sure,” MacLellan said then. “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.”
Said Backstrom: “Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it, but I’ve played here my whole career, so I would like to stay here. I love it here. If they want me, it’s a two-sided story . . . I’m not thinking about it. I’m just trying to move on for next year. I’ve got one more year and right now it’s out of my hands. We’ll talk about it when it gets closer.”