Wearing a blue jacket and a red tie, Nicklas Backstrom sat between Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan and team president Dick Patrick to start the inevitable afternoon of press conference questions, then interviews and more interviews.
“Inevitable” was the best way to describe the affair. Both parties wanted to ensure that Backstrom would be a Capital for life; it was just a matter of when a new contract would be finalized and for what terms.
Backstrom’s new five-year, $46 million deal announced Tuesday all but guarantees that he’ll wear one uniform for the rest of his playing days.
“I had one goal in mind and that was to stay here,” Backstrom said. “Personally, I always dreamed of finishing my career here and hopefully that will be the case. I love the city, I love the fans and love the organization, so it was no doubt in my mind.”
The Capitals locked up one of their franchise cornerstones until he is 37 years old, while Backstrom earned a healthy pay raise from $6.7 million to $9.2 million in average annual value.
Backstrom, 32, is the Capitals’ all-time assists leader and has scored the second-most points in a Capitals uniform behind only Alex Ovechkin. Backstrom and Ovechkin have played more than 900 games together in Washington since Backstrom was drafted fourth overall in 2006.
Ovechkin gave his longtime linemate and friend a “big hug” upon hearing about the new contract, Backstrom said.
Backstrom parted ways with his former agent, Marc Levine, before the 2019-20 season and chose to negotiate his own contract. It’s an uncommon move in the NHL; MacLellan said he hadn’t dealt with a player directly before and could only think of one current player, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who had gone that route.
Backstrom said he met face to face with MacLellan seven or eight times since October, sometimes in hotel rooms while the team was traveling for games. The Swede joked that MacLellan drove a hard bargain, and that he forgot to bring a calculator to their first few meetings.
Though that was Backstrom’s typical sense of humor, it also revealed just how relieved he was to complete the negotiations.
“At the end of the day, when you’re playing you still have it in the back of your head what’s going to happen,” he said. “‘Am I going somewhere else?’ You don’t want to, but that’s just part of the process. Now (that) it’s over I’m just happy that it’s done.”
Backstrom said he’d recommend self-representation to other players — “Why not?” — but he didn’t think he needed to give any negotiating advice to Ovechkin, whose current 13-year contract is up after next season.
Before the Capitals move on to a new Ovechkin deal, they have to grapple with a tough decision about their other pending free agent: goaltender Braden Holtby. Rookie Ilya Samsonov has played effectively enough this season as the No. 2 goalie to show he will be a capable goalie of the future for Washington.
Just last Friday, MacLellan insisted in an NHL Network interview that Holtby was “our guy” and the club’s No. 1 goalie. But re-signing him beyond this year will prove difficult.
“We’re going to have to get creative if we want to accomplish signing Holtby,” MacLellan told reporters Tuesday, “with trades or find ways to create room.”
MacLellan said the front office has kept Holtby in the loop about Backstrom’s negotiations and the cap situation throughout the season.
“Holtby’s a big part of our success as an organization, and he’s in the mix with Ovi and Nick as defining our organization,” MacLellan said. “I think we had an open communication at the beginning of the year and then we were going to address it at the end of the year to see where we’re at with cap and possibilities or not possibilities. So, we’re going to play it out.”
The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Backstrom’s contract has a no-move clause for the first three years and a modified no-trade clause for the final two. It was structured that way because of the upcoming Seattle expansion draft in 2021; with a full no-move clause in place, the Capitals will be required to protect Backstrom from the draft, though it was almost certain they would have protected him anyway.
For now, the Capitals still pace the NHL with 67 points (31-11-5) and are one of a handful of Stanley Cup favorites. Keeping Backstrom and Ovechkin will sustain the Capitals’ “championship window” for a while longer.
“At some point in our future, Nick’s gonna be retiring, Alex is gonna be retiring and those are going to be big changes for the organization that we hope we’ll be prepared for when they happen,” Patrick said. “But in the meantime, we all want to enjoy what we have.”
• Adam Zielonka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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