The Capitals may be five games into the 2019-20 season, but the expiring contracts of goaltender Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom have loomed large over the team since the offseason, and for good reason. The two have been part of the Capitals’ core that includes John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin since the Caps drafted Holtby and Carlson in the 2008 NHL Draft.
While Carlson was locked up last season with an 8-year, $64 million contract that’ll keep him here through the 2025-26 season, the Caps still do not know what to do about Holtby and Backstrom, both of whom are looking to get big paydays. The NHL’s $81.5 million salary cap limits the Capitals even more, who are expected to only have a little over $112,600 of cap space according to CapFriendly.
This means in all likelihood that the Capitals will have to choose one of Holtby or Backstrom to keep. It’s a difficult decision for sure, as Holtby has been one of the best goalies in the NHL since he took over as the team’s starting goalie in the 2012-13 season. His incredible play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs was a vital reason the team took home the cup, and his legendary play referred to only as “The Save” in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals will be remembered as one of the biggest moments in Capitals history.
Backstrom on the other hand has been one of the most consistent playmakers in the league since he started with the Caps in the 2007-08 season. His chemistry with Ovechkin has been a staple for the franchise and letting him go would be like letting the heart and soul of the team walk away. Backstrom, like Holtby, has made it known he wants to stay in Washington, but he seems content to play the year out without it being an issue.
Holtby’s contract might be the more difficult of the two to negotiate, as he is anticipating a contract in the range of Sergei Bobrovsky’s 7-year, $70 million contract that he signed with the Florida Panthers this offseason. Both have had similar career trajectories and it only makes sense for Holtby to be getting a similar payday. Bobrovsky went from a contract with the Blue Jackets that was giving him $7.4 million a year to his current $10 million contract, while Holtby’s currently getting just $6.1 million on his current deal which is just the eighth highest in the league for goaltenders.
Backstrom’s getting $6.7 million on his current deal, which will likely bounce up closer to around $8-9 million range which is fair since Backstrom is just the 24th highest-paid center in the league and Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov was just awarded a deal giving him $7.8 million two seasons ago. Backstrom will probably look to Sharks center Logan Couture’s contract as a starting point. The 30-year-old center just resigned with the Sharks this offseason for $8 million until the 2026-27 season, effectively keeping him in San Jose for the remainder of his career.
While losing either is a huge blow to the Capitals, the one thing to look to that may make the decision a whole lot easier for the Caps is the backup goalie position currently occupied by the 22-year-old Russian Ilya Samsonov. Drafted No. 22 in the 2015 NHL Draft, Samsonov has been one of the highest-touted young talents in Washington’s prospect pool and for good reason. He was fantastic in the KHL, and is finally getting a chance in Washington behind Holtby. His debut added to the hype, as he made 25 saves against Barry Trotz’ Islanders to help beat them 2–1.
The expectation surrounding Samsonov is that this year will be a trial-run for him to see if he’s ready to take the starting position if Holtby ends up leaving. He’ll probably get somewhere around 25-30 starts this year which should be a large enough sample for the Caps to decide whether or not he’s ready. His play may end up determining this entire situation because the Caps may not have Backstrom’s replacement currently on the roster, making his departure that much more risky.
This debate won’t actually be answered until the season ends, which may not be for quite a while. The Capitals are once again considered a Stanley Cup contender with their core still intact and the team relatively healthy (besides the absence of defensemen Michal Kempny). Another run at the Stanley Cup makes the lingering feeling of losing a beloved player just a little less worrisome.
At least for the time being.