Just about a year ago, we took a look at the Caps' players and suits who would be under the most pressure heading into what probably was the season with the highest pre-season expectations in franchise history. And what we said then is just as true today, so rather than reinvent the wheel...
Most of the team's players are back, a year older, a year wiser, and a year hungrier... you'd hope. That combination of talent and disappointment, built up over a couple of years, results in a few organizational pressure points - men who are on the hot seat, as it were. Here, however, we're going to use a more familiar icon to represent just how much heat the following five men are feeling... a scale of one-to-five "hot sticks" (yes, in reality the "hot stick" is a good thing, but just go with it).
We singled out five individuals then, all of whom fell short of their personal and team goals for the season, and four of whom are back for another bite at the apple. Who makes the list this time around and how high is the temperature for each? Find out after the jump.
Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau survived an eight-game losing streak and a fourth-consecutive playoff loss to a lower-seeded team in 2010-11, but at some point impressive regular seasons will no longer outweigh brutal post-season disappointments. And while Boudreau will almost certainly get another shot at the playoffs (as there's little he can or can't prove during the regular season any more), it's hard to imagine that his job isn't on the line come springtime.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and, yes, Alexander Semin. The Caps' "Young Guns" ain't so young any more, as they enter their fifth season together. Each of the four is coming off a disappointing campaign, be it in terms of production (Ovechkin and Backstrom), injuries (Semin) or both (Green), and, of course, in terms of the season's ultimate result, and reputations are beginning to be etched in stone. As Green himself said recently, "We’ve wasted enough time here. We feel like our time is now." If this current foundation crumbles again in April or May, don't expect the four to be wasting any more time all together thereafter.
George McPhee. By retaining Boudreau, McPhee sent a strong message to his locker room and the hockey world at large that he believes it was the players and not the coach that cost his team a bite at the Stanley Cup apple yet again. (It's not the move we'd have made, but if we knew anything about hockey....) McPhee has added grit, veteran leadership and gritty veteran leadership this summer, as well as lucking into the single biggest open market score of July, and one would think that his and Boudreau's fates aren't necessarily inextricably bound, but betting on Boudreau, Semin and others could have consequences if things go south.
some of the other contracts handed out in that same neighborhood this summer, that's not necessarily setting the bar too high. Instead, Laich must show that he's capable of handling duty as a shutdown pivot, a scoring line winger, and a net presence on the power-play, as the situations demand.. Versatile fan-favorite Laich posted his worst goal-scoring season since the days Glen Hanlon was behind the bench and failed to top 50 points for the first time since Boudreau took over... and yet managed to parlay that into a six-year contract extension that will pay him an average of $4.5 million per year. We would have noted that it's now on Laich to prove that he's worth it, but given
Roman Hamrlik has played 16 more NHL playoff games than Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz combined. Jeff Halpern played his first NHL game four days before Marcus Johansson's ninth birthday (Tomas Vokoun's first appeared in an NHL tilt when Michal Neuvirth was eight-years-old). Troy Brouwer is barely a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup, and Joel Ward is a hard-working, defensively responsible winger whose most recent playoff performance earned him a few extra bucks in free agency. Each of these players brings something to the table other than boxcar stats, and it's critically important that they reach and influence the holdovers from last season who need to be reached and influenced..
. The dynamic duo of Carlson and Alzner finished the 2009-10 campaign by winning the Calder Cup in Hershey, and by the midpoint of the following season were the top defensive pairing for what would end up being the Eastern Conference's best team during the regular season. There's pressure on the young pair (neither is yet 23-years-old) to show that 2010-11 wasn't a fluke, to keep developing, and to help carry the team to the next level when the games matter most. But really, any heat that's on the two is the result of the expectations they've created with their exceptional play to date.
Florida Panthers, Vokoun will most likely get his first chance to play a playoff game for the first time since 2006-07. He's also playing for his next contract (after taking a bargain-basement $1.5 million one-year deal with the Caps) and to show that he is truly an elite NHL netminder. As Vokoun himself said, "I’m gonna have a chance to stand on the other side of the ice and have, at minimum, as good a team as the other guy has." Let's see what he does with that chance.. Having spent the last four seasons in something akin to hockey purgatory playing for the
Dennis Wideman) and perhaps a less-pressure-filled role, but it's on Sarge himself to return to form. If he does, the Caps should have the deepest blueline in the East.. A season after leading the League in plus-minus with an eye-popping plus-50 rating, Schultz... well, regressed. Still just 25-years-old, Schultz needs to get his development back on track or he could find himself fighting for ice time at the back-end of the D-corps. An off-season without mono and with the ability to train should help, as should a veteran partner (presumably