The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby in contract years, Capitals could be facing an era’s end

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and Tom Wilson joined forces on the ice and then again on stage during the Capitals' Stanley Cup victory celebration in 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The day after the Washington Capitals selected Nicklas Backstrom in the 2006 NHL draft, he spotted Alex Ovechkin walking through the Vancouver airport with a huge trophy in his hands.

Back then, Backstrom didn’t know much about Ovechkin other than he was coming off a great rookie season. Less than 24 hours earlier, they had exchanged standard greetings but nothing more after Ovechkin announced Backstrom as the fourth pick.

So as the soft-spoken 18-year-old watched the Capitals’ rising superstar casually carry the Calder Memorial Trophy, given to the NHL’s rookie of the year, through the airport as if it were just another piece of luggage, Backstrom couldn’t help but laugh. This, he realized, was the real Ovechkin, the player with whom Backstrom would build a friendship. Together, they would anchor a Washington core that would carry the Capitals to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018.

“Now it makes sense,” Backstrom said with a grin as he remembered the interaction 13 years later. “It was a typical Ovi thing to do. … He saw me [and] stopped and talked to me. And from then on, the rest is history.”

The Capitals’ longest-tenured players have navigated everything from years of frustrating, premature playoff exits to celebrating a championship with a parade down Constitution Avenue. But they couldn’t do it on their own. The organization added key pieces to the leadership group early on with goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman John Carlson, both drafted in 2008.

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As other organizational stalwarts have come and gone, the four have remained in Washington. But keeping them together is about to become more difficult. Carlson signed an eight-year, $64 million extension in 2018, but Backstrom and Holtby are set to play on expiring contracts this season, and Ovechkin has two years left on his deal.

“It’s something that’s kind of crept up on us,” Holtby said, “that all of a sudden you’re having to face these questions that we never really thought we’d have.”

The onetime young stars are now some of the oldest players in the dressing room — and facing an uncertain future. With contract speculation comes a heightened sense of urgency. The franchise’s window to win with this core is the tightest it has ever been. After years of calls for the group to be broken apart as the team struggled in the postseason, that possibility suddenly feels real — just two seasons removed from the franchise’s first championship.

While the salary cap will make it especially difficult for the Capitals to keep both Holtby and Backstrom after this season, General Manager Brian MacLellan said he doesn’t necessarily see it as a choice between the two.

“I didn’t think we would be able to get enough money to sign Carlson, and we made it happen,” MacLellan said. “I am not ruling anything out. I mean, obviously it will be tough to do, especially if they both have good years. It is going to be hard to do, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

For the 2020-21 season, the Capitals have just over $62 million committed to 10 forwards, four defensemen and a goalie. With the 2019-20 salary cap at $81.5 million and a slight increase expected next year, the Capitals won’t have much room to play with.

Backstrom, 31, is in the last year of a 10-year, $67 million contract; Holtby, 30, signed a five-year, $30.5 million deal in 2015. Both players — especially Holtby — will seek higher paychecks. Holtby’s résumé is similar to that of Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Florida Panthers in July. Asked whether he would take a hometown discount, Holtby didn’t rule it out.

“There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time, you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” he said.

The Capitals have met with both players’ agents, and MacLellan expects talks to continue as the season goes on.

“You can never tell what is going to happen during the year,” he said. “You may have an injury, a trade might happen, so many things that go into a season that you are never certain what your cap space is or who you are going to have available at the end of the year.”

Backstrom, who admitted he tries not to read everything written about the team but hasn’t been able to duck the contract discussions, said he hopes the Capitals can work out deals for both players.

“If it were up to me, I would try to keep both of us,” he said. “I love Braden. He’s a hell of a goaltender, and he’s been showing that all his career here. So that’s just the way it is. I like his mentality. He is all about winning, which I love.”

Backstrom and Holtby gravitated toward each other after Holtby got the call-up to Washington. With Backstrom’s European way of life meshing with Holtby’s Canadian upbringing, the two started to bond. Backstrom appreciated the goaltender’s hard-nosed persona on the ice and his relaxed character off it. Ovechkin has a similar respect for Holtby’s style of play and vice versa, with Ovechkin calling Holtby the “best goalie in the league” when he is on top of his game.

Looking at them now, they appear to be an easygoing group, still feeling the glow and relief of finally winning the Stanley Cup, but it wasn’t always that simple. Before Barry Trotz became the Capitals’ coach in May 2014, they lacked discipline off the ice at times, and all said there were periods of frustration — not with individuals but with the team itself as the players tried to push past their early postseason exits.

“It made some real frustrating times for everyone, but through that, you come out stronger and more together as a group,” Holtby said.

The once-young core has grown up. Backstrom quipped that in the first chapter of their lives as teammates, Ovechkin took Backstrom under his wing. Then, as the group got older and Backstrom became a father, Backstrom took Ovechkin under his. Ovechkin agreed with that assessment.

“We was young, and we was crazy,” he said. “But now everything has changed.”

Backstrom said he has never thought about playing without Ovechkin, adding it would be a bit “weird” to skate without the Russian captain by his side. Ovechkin doesn’t want to entertain the notion.

“You know, I think what we did for the city, what we did for the team, it’s going to be forever, right?” Ovechkin said. “So I hope [Backstrom will] sign long term, and he will stay until the last day. His legacy is here, and I think he would not have more fun to play on different teams than here.”

Backstrom said the pair have maintained a steady partnership, from their interactions at the draft and the Vancouver airport through the moment in September when Backstrom watched Ovechkin bring his infant son, Sergei, into the Capitals’ dressing room on Ovechkin’s 34th birthday.

Now 13 years after Ovechkin knew Backstrom only as “some kid in Sweden that was very talented,” the idea of the end arriving still isn’t at the forefront of their minds.

“I mean, obviously one day, it’s going to happen that someday we both retire,” Backstrom said. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t look that far ahead. We should just take it day by day. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay in the same organization, and hopefully we will for the rest of our careers.”

Contract talk has dominated discussion outside the Capitals’ dressing room, but nothing has really changed inside it. If this is the end of an era, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby know they have to make the most of it.

“Our job is play hockey, right?” Ovechkin said. “What happens in [the] next year or two years, we’ll see, but we just want to go out there and have fun. And, you know, we know what we can do on the ice, and that is the most important thing.”