Capitals #1 center Nicklas Backstrom is due a big pay raise come July 1 when he becomes a restricted free agent. Talks on a new contract are in progress and the two sides appear relatively close to a deal. Trying to figure out his worth based on recently awarded contracts for comparable players is an interesting exercise, but one must also consider the salary structure on the Capitals. Next season, Alex Ovechkin is due $9 million, Alexander Semin is due $6 million, and Mike Green is due $5 million.
The next question is term: Ovechkin is signed for another 11 seasons, Semin is UFA after next season, and Green is on for another 2 seasons. Where does Backstrom fit in this scheme? One could argue he's somewhere between Semin and Ovechkin based on his role and production.
Nicklas Backstrom will turn 23 next November and is in his third season. He has never missed a game. He has been the Capitals #1 center for most of his tenure in DC, with a brief stint on the wing in his first 20 games and a short stay at #2 center in the 2008 playoffs. He has been in the elite among centers the past two years after finishing second in the 2008 Rookie of the Year voting. He finished 10th in league scoring last season and is sitting tied for third with Sidney Crosby this season.
Let's take a look at comparable players around the league. I looked at mostly young centers. All the players I looked at are the #1 centers on their teams, or in one case, could easily be the #1 center on any other team.
The comparable players are: Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Paul Stastny, Mike Richards, and Henrik Sedin. Sedin is the outlier among these players because he signed his last contract as an unrestricted free agent, but I found him to be very comparable otherwise.
For Malkin, Toews, Getzlaf, Stastny, and Richards, I compared their production over their first three years in the NHL, the years leading up to their second NHL contracts. Sedin was entering unrestricted free agency, so is not subject to the same market pressures as the others, but in any event, I will compare his three seasons leading up to his newest contract.
Backstrom: 235 Games Played, 65 Goals, 179 Assists, 244 Points, 1.04 Points Per Game, 0.28 Goals Per Game
-Malkin (5 years, $8.7 million per): 242 GP, 115-189-304, 1.26 PPG, 0.48 PPG
-Stastny (5 years, $6.6 million per): 193 GP, 63-122-185, 0.96 PPG, 0.33 GPG
-Toews (5 years, $6.3 million per): 210 GP, 80-101-181, 0.86 PPG, 0.38 GPG
-Getzlaf (5 years, $5.33 million per): 216 GP, 63-116-179, 0.83 PPG, 0.29 GPG
-Richards (12 years, $5.75 million per): 211 GP, 49-92-141, 0.67 PPG, 0.23 GPG
-Sedin* (5 years, $6.1 million per): 246 GP, 47-192-239, 0.97 PPG, 0.19 GPG
Evgeni Malkin is on this list to illustrate the upper limit of Backstrom's range. Malkin is a much better goal scorer and already has won several major NHL awards, including the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, the Ross Trophy as leading scorer, the Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and a Stanley Cup. His $8.7 million per season is the same salary as Crosby's, and Backstrom will not get that kind of money.
Paul Stastny is the most comparable in terms of average production and role, a scoring leader on a young and improving team, but he is not as durable as Backstrom and is not quite as productive, so Backstrom's value should be correspondingly higher than Stastny's $6.6 million. Backstrom is better than both Toews, who beat him for 2008 Rookie of the Year, and Getzlaf, who won the 2007 Stanley Cup.
Mike Richards is on this list because he didn't sign a 5-year deal. Backstrom could easily be looking for a deal that would keep him in Washington as long as Ovechkin, which would be an 11-year deal. His durability, leadership, and demeanor make him an excellent candidate for such a long term deal. The hold up on his contract so far may be due to just such a demand, but from which side is uncertain.
The most interesting player on this list is Henrik Sedin. He is the only other Swede on this list and his offensive numbers are the most similar to Backstrom's. He is also one of only two players to be ahead of Backstrom in NHL scoring. He was unrestricted last summer and could have signed with any NHL team. He and his brother were looking for much longer deals than what they got, but ultimately they decided they'd rather play together and they could have made much more money that what they got from Vancouver, $6.1 million per year for 5 years. If Caps General Manager George McPhee can point to him as an example of the hometown discount and saving money so your team can sign other players, he might be able to convince Backstrom to take close to $6.1 million. That would put him over Semin's salary.
Judging by Malkin's and Stastny's numbers, Backstrom is worth in the $7 to 7.5 million dollar range. He is superior to Stastny but below Malkin's production. He should get at least five years, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get anywhere between 5 and 11 years. We'll see what numbers Backstrom and his agent are looking at, but anything below $6.9 million will be a hometown discount, and with a team that has a legitimate chance at a Stanley Cup and where he gets to center Ovechkin, that might be just enough to make taking less money worth it.