Sizing up the Backstrom contract

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After a slow start, Nicklas Backstrom had another fine season in his sophomore campaign. He finished with 22 goals and 88 points (10th in the league), and his 66 assists were tied for third with Ryan Getzlaf. In the playoffs, Backstrom had 15 points in 14 games (currently 10th in the league in PPG) and had one of the great individual performances of the season in Game 3 against the Rangers. He has cemented himself among the top setup men in the league, and there is potential for more goals as well.

Backstrom was the team’s most consistent forward once he shrugged off his early season woes. His game grew a lot in his second season in other areas. He improved a little in the face-off circle (with more work to be done), but his work along the wall and in the corners was much improved. When put on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, there was often magic at the offensive end, but it also left Backstrom with more responsibility in his own end.

This might not seem like it matters, but he also became much more quotable for the media. His grasp of the language is better, but it was more than just that. There has been a perception of Backstrom that he is a shy, quiet, unassuming guy who was happy to play second fiddle (first to Michael Nylander early in his career and now to Ovechkin). Towards the end of the season and, especially in the playoffs, Backstrom became more assertive with his thoughts and more willing to be honest about why he or his teammates needed to be better. It is clear that as he gets older and becomes more comfortable, he has a chance to be a better leader for this team than people might have expected.

Backstrom has one more year left on his entry-level deal before he becomes a restricted free agent. The Caps can start negotiating a deal with him on July 1 (or that’s the earliest he can sign, anyway). So, how much is the 21-year-old center worth, and how will the market help or hurt him?

Here are some comparable elite young centers in this league that have already signed their first big contract, and a few guys like Backstrom who will be looking for long-term deals in the coming months:

Note: The player’s age and stats are from the year before/during he signed the big contract

RYAN GETZLAF, DUCKS

Age: 22

2007-08: 24 goals, 82 points

Contract: 5 years, $26.25 million

DEREK ROY, SABRES

Age: 24

2006-07: 21 goals, 63 points

Contract: 6 years, $24 million

ERIC STAAL, HURRICANES

Age: 21

2005-06: 45 goals, 100 points

Contract: 3 years, $13.5 million (has since inked a 7 year, $57.75 million extension)

PAUL STASTNY, AVALANCHE

Age: 23

2007-08: 24 goals, 71 points

Contract: 5 years, $33 million

NATHAN HORTON, PANTHERS

Age: 21

2006-07: 31 goals, 62 points

Contract: 6 years, $24 million

ANZE KOPITAR, KINGS

Age: 20

2007-08: 32 goals, 77 points

Contract: 7 years, $47.6 million

JASON SPEZZA, SENATORS

Age: 24

2006-07: 34 goals, 87 points

Contract: 7 years, $49 million

MIKE RICHARDS, FLYERS

Age: 22

2007-08: 28 goals, 75 points

Contract: 12 years, $69 million

JORDAN STAAL, PENGUINS

Age: 21

2008-09: 22 goals, 49 points

Contract: 4 years, $16 million

As for the other guys who might be signing deals this summer:

NICKLAS BACKSTROM, CAPITALS

Age: 21

2008-09: 22 goals, 88 points

Contract: ???

PHIL KESSEL, BRUINS (not really a center anymore)

Age: 21

2008-09: 36 goals, 60 points

Contract: ???

PATRICK KANE, BLACKHAWKS

Age: 20

2008-09: 25 goals, 70 points

Contract: ???

JONATHAN TOEWS, BLACKHAWKS

Age: 21

2008-09: 34 goals, 69 points

Contract: ???

Skinny: OK, so there are nine guys who have already signed and three who will be looking for a deal this summer. What to make of all of that? One, Ryan Getzlaf’s agent undersold him a bit. The Caps would love for Backstrom to take that deal, but expect it to be a little higher than that.

The first question is term: How long are the Caps and Backstrom’s camp willing to go? There has been some scuttlebutt that the league and/or the NHLPA is trying to put a stop to these mega-contracts like the ones Richards and Ovechkin have signed. There are few guys in this league that those types of deals are worth doing with, but I think Backstrom is one of them. If he wants to pursue a 10-to-12 year deal to stay with Ovechkin for the majority of their careers, the Caps should consider it.

But assuming he’s looking for a more typical length (say, five or six years to buy out one or two years of unrestricted free agency), here’s guessing the average annual value (i.e. cap hit) falls somewhere just shy of Stastny’s $6.6/year. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Chicago kids and Kessel, and if their negotiations affect Backstrom’s deal or vice versa.

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