It's become our annual rite of fall to look at those within the organization who might be under a bit of pressure in the upcoming season. And while expectations have been tempered a bit in recent seasons (let alone in the last year), there's always plenty of heat to go around. As a friendly reminder...
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 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).
There are some who have repeatedly felt the heat, and others who are perhaps feeling it for the first time. So who made the cut? Check out the toasty tails below:
George McPhee. McPhee always seems to be pretty high on this list, and understandably so; when it comes to roster decisions, draft decisions, and staff decisions, the buck stops here. As quiet as things have been on the player movement front this summer, McPhee’s been plenty busy, starting with another upgrade for the second line in the form of bargain center Mikhail Grabovski. He also locked up all of the Caps’ restricted free agents, including both goalies, to cap-friendly contracts, and seems content (for now) to go forward with the largely homegrown team he’s put together. It’s too early to tell whether Adam Oates is indeed the right head coach for this team, but early returns are promising and that’s a good sign for McPhee – because even in DC, there are only so many coaches one can hire and fire before the axe starts to swing a bit higher up.
Alex Ovechkin. Another frequent possessor of warm buns is the Caps’ captain - perpetually in the spotlight, under the microscope and in front of the firing squad. Because as long as the Caps are Ovechkin’s team he will shoulder the blame for their failures (regardless of how much of it is his fault… and at times some of it is). So it would be nice if he could take the rejuvenation he experienced under Oates’s watchful eye last season and not only continue it this year but expand on it, find new layers of talent that we all know is in there and help take his team to the next level (or at least the next round of the playoffs).
Braden Holtby. The party line within the Caps’ organization is still that the team has two very good young goalies, and while this is certainly true, there’s no question that Holtby has leaped ahead of Michal Neuvirth as the team’s #1 goalie. He has the trust of Oates and a great mentor in Olie Kolzig to guide him this season, to say nothing of another season of experience under his belt and ice water in his veins – and he’ll need all of that, because if the Caps are going to survive the new Metropolitan Division he’ll have to stare down some serious offensive talent on a nightly basis, whether it’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Marian Gaborik or our old pal Alexander Semin.
Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is sometimes sheltered a bit from criticism by the larger-than-life Ovechkin, but the fact is that Backstrom's playoff production (or lack thereof) has been one of the team's better-kept secrets in recent years. In 413 career regular season games, he has 415 points, just over a point-per-game pace. In the postseason, however, he's got 43 points in 57 games - not a horrible total, but well off his regular pace (and even further off if you consider that only 13 of those points have been scored in his last 29 games, aka his last five playoff series). Backstrom is relied upon to be one of the team's leaders, and with a healthy cap hit of $6.7 million through 2020, a significant investment for the team. Until he picks it up in the playoffs, the Caps will likely continue to disappoint in the postseason - because they need their best players to be their best players, and Backstrom simply hasn't been.
Mike Green. For the first time in a long time, Green is coming into a season with a full offseason of training and preparation and without any lingering injury concerns, which is huge… for Green, though, there’s always a lingering injury concern, isn’t there? Once healthy, he was one of the League’s best offensive blueliners down the stretch last year, particularly on the power play and showed glimpses of the old Mike Green as he racked up the points in his slick-skating way. This time around, he (like his team) needs to figure things out at even strength, because so many times the play begins with his ability to start it – and as we all saw, there’s no guarantee of a power play in the playoffs.
Adam Oates. With just a half-season as head coach on his resume, the honeymoon probably isn’t entirely over for Adam Oates and for now his seat is merely lukewarm. However, the fact is that the grace period for head coaches is painfully short; sure, he reawakened the talent and fun in Alex Ovechkin and turned a dead-last team into a playoff team, but if the forward momentum doesn’t continue it won’t be long before everyone’s asking "what have you done for me lately?" Oates inherited a very talented yet flawed team that has suffered the burden of high expectations and intense heartbreak, and that’s not an easy challenge to take on by any stretch of the imagination… but it’s hard to watch what he’s done and what he’s trying to do, and not think he might just be the right guy for the job. Time will tell.
Martin Erat and Brooks Laich. Both Erat and Laich are coming into the 2013-14 season with heightened expectations and plenty to prove after last season's bumps in the road. Both are pulling down healthy $4.5 million cap hits and will probably be, in some order, the team's second-line and third-line left wingers (although don't rule out a stint at center for either one) and thus relied upon to provide a lot of the secondary offense for the team. For Erat, he'll need to bounce back from some injuries that limited his effectiveness with the team while carrying the (mostly unfair) burden of being the guy the Caps acquired for "prized" prospect Filip Forsberg. As for Laich, his first real season of adversity is behind him and now the focus has to be on being smart and avoiding injury going forward (so... good start, Brooks). The pressure is on both of them to not only play the majority of the season but perform well when they do.
John Carlson. Mike Green may drive the offense at times, but he doesn’t do it alone (or at all, when he’s injured). The rest of that load falls on the shoulders of Carlson, who skates big minutes for the team and with those minutes takes on huge responsibility at both ends of the ice. At just 23 years old, he’s still a ways away from what traditionally is the peak for a defenseman – which is both good and bad, because while he may improve every year, he also is still prone to the mistakes of youth and inexperience. That can be tricky, since he’s probably facing another season alongside whoever the fourth defenseman ends up being, whether it’s John Erskine or someone else. He’ll need to make sure those mistakes are minimal (or at least that he recovers quickly and successfully), or it could be a very long season.
Mikhail Grabovski. You probably won’t find many people with a decent base of hockey knowledge who think Grabovski was used correctly by his Toronto coach last year; that said, ranting about it on the radio after being bought out is probably not the best PR move (although it was hilarious). Because of that, Grabovski faces something of a challenge to prove that his basic point behind the cursing was valid – and the only way to accomplish this is to put together a great season. He’s not only playing for pride but also for a new contract, and he’s got a second chance to do both with the Caps. All that’s left is for him to take advantage of it.
Troy Brouwer. Grabovski’s performance will have an impact on the whole second line, of course, and that’s conceivably where Brouwer will play (although one never really knows with Oates…maybe Brouwer’s the team’s fourth defenseman). Tasked with the job of finisher on the second line and to some extent on the power play, Brouwer put up some pretty impressive offense last season, albeit with a shooting percentage that is poised to regress this year – but if you think Oates will settle for regression as far as output is concerned, you’d better think again. The coach has already proclaimed that he expects more of the same this time around. The heat is on, Troy.
Marcus Johansson. Johansson’s contract negotiations felt like they went on forever, and for a while there it seemed like the Caps might kick off the year without a third of their uber-successful top line. They got it together eventually, though, and Johansson rejoined Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin just in time for the start of camp - new contract in hand and no sign of the concussion symptoms (we hope) that plagued him at the start of the 2013 season. He’s poised to pick up where he and the rest of his trio left off at the end of last year, and this is a big chance for him to prove that he belongs on that top line – it’s not about the points, because when you skate with Ovechkin and Backstrom you’re going to get points. For Johansson it’s about evolving as a player, becoming just a bit more physical and developing a better ability to finish the golden opportunities his linemates provide for him.
John Erskine. If Adam Oates isn’t lying and Erskine is officially cemented in as the team’s fourth D, big John is going to be under a bit of pressure to not only handle but excel in that role – because there’s no one else. Clearly.