Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.