ARLINGTON — Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said the front office is in communication with center Nicklas Backstrom about a new contract but declined to comment further.
MacLellan did not confirm or deny that Backstrom is representing himself in the negotiations. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported over the weekend that Backstrom has begun talks with the Capitals without an agent.
Backstrom is playing out the final year of a 10-year contract he signed in 2010, a deal negotiated by his current agent, Mark Levine. It’s unknown whether Backstrom and Levine have parted ways.
“I’d prefer just to let it be now,” MacLellan said. “That’s up to Nick if he wants to comment on whatever’s going on. We want him back. He’s a big part of our organization. We’re going to do whatever we can to get him back.”
Backstrom is day to day with an upper-body injury and was not available to the media at practice. He won’t play Wednesday when the Capitals host the Florida Panthers, but he did a solo conditioning skate Tuesday before the rest of the team took the ice.
MacLellan told the Washington Post last year that “we’re going to be sentimental” when negotiating new deals or extensions with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, which could mean awarding a higher salary than the average 30-something hockey player would get. Ovechkin’s contract is up after the 2020-21 season, and the soonest he can sign an extension is July 1 of next year.
Before his injury, Backstrom had tallied four goals and 14 assists playing primarily on the top line with Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.
Scoring hasn’t been a problem for the Capitals, who lead the NHL through Monday’s games with 88 goals. Indeed, MacLellan’s mind was elsewhere, as he expressed disappointment with some occasional subpar play from the defensemen.
“We’re an inconsistent blue line as a whole,” he said. “I think that’s one area that for the second half of the season or going forward here we’re trying to be a little more consistent, not have the lows that sometimes we do have during games and stretches.”
Coach Todd Reirden has switched Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas in and out of the second-pair right defenseman spot, a top-four role that comes with more minutes per game and responsibility. MacLellan hoped to see more from one or the other.
“I think at times both of them have been really good and then at other times they’re both making mistakes, too,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to see one of them grab that No. 4 spot and just hang onto and go forward for the rest of the year.”
Jensen was acquired at last year’s trade deadline and handed a four-year contract, while the Capitals swapped Matt Niskanen for Gudas during the offseason. The expectation was that Jensen would step into a top-four role while Gudas would replace the physicality of retired third-pair mainstay Brooks Orpik.
With injuries to Backstrom and two other forwards along with Garnet Hathaway’s suspension for spitting, it’s been a tricky task for the front office to keep the Capitals below the salary cap this month. MacLellan said he’s spent more time having daily discussions about the cap and roster construction than ever before — but he still took a glass-half-full view of it.
“There’s a lot of guys, it benefits them,” MacLellan said. “(Beck) Malenstyn had a good camp. We get to see Malenstyn play. (Travis) Boyd has been up and down, played well for us. (Chandler) Stephenson gets to play a little higher role … It’s an opportunity for us to use our depth and to evaluate the guys we do have.”
After the Florida game, the Capitals have a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning and traveling to the Detroit Red Wings. Hathaway can return from suspension in time for Friday’s game.