Before each of the last two seasons, we've taken a look at some of the Caps' players and suits who would be under the most pressure in the upcoming campaign. And while expectations have gone from "they can win it all!!" to "who the heck knows?", there's still plenty of heat to go around - especially for a team that has notoriously under-performed in recent years. For old time's sake...
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).
Some of the names remain the same. Others are new to the flames. But they all have something to prove (although just how long they'll have to do so - or whether they'll get a chance at all - remains up in the air).
So who made the cut? Check out the temperature gauges below.
George McPhee. This past summer was a relatively busy one for McPhee, as he finally acquired a second-line center in Mike Ribeiro, rounded out the roster with some affordable complementary pieces and locked up some of his core young talent. But arguably his biggest move was the hiring of new head coach (and former Cap) Adam Oates - marking the third straight time he's hired a bench boss with no prior NHL coaching experience. As he heads into his 15th season as the Caps' GM, it's a risky move for McPhee that needs to pay off... because if it doesn't, his 15th season could also be his last.
Alex Ovechkin. Few (if any) in the NHL have had their every move dissected, analyzed and criticized quite the way Alex Ovechkin has in recent years. With heightened expectations comes heightened scrutiny, and Ovechkin has shouldered both - along with the captaincy - as the face, name and leader of this oft-underachieving Caps team. Coming off a career-low in points, Ovechkin will likely be placed under the microscope yet again, with fans and media alike waiting to see if a new bench boss, some new faces in the locker room (along with one notable absence) and another year of maturation will finally push Alex to be the player he can be.
Mike Green. Injury and inconsistency have left all of us wondering in recent years where the Real Mike Green has gone (or if he ever even existed). And yet even during off-years he has been one of the engines of the team, the driving force behind the power play and a player who has proven to be very difficult to replace. With a new contract in hand and a seemingly strong recovery from abdominal surgery last season, Green appears poised to remind us all that his early success was not just a fluke - which is good, because the team needs him to return to his old ways ASAP.
. The departure of Alexander Semin over the summer left a void in the lineup that won't be easy to fill - but these are the guys who will need to try, the wingers who are tasked with providing secondary scoring. Four of the five have been here long enough to know the drill and have had varying levels of success; whether the addition of Wolski at a bargain basement price will be enough to give the team that extra boost of offense they need or not remains to be seen. However you slice it, though, these are the guys who will ultimately need to step up when the big guys get shut down.
Nicklas Backstrom. If used correctly, if he meshes with his linemates, if he can find some consistency, he may very well be that answer. If not? ...next!. Of all the new players brought in by GMGM this summer, Ribeiro is probably the most eagerly anticipated - and as such, joins the Caps under a fair amount of pressure already, considering he has yet to play a game with his new team. The second-line center issue is one that has plagued the Caps for years now, but with Ribeiro comes the hope that they've finally found their answer (at least for now), a guy who can be a reliable 1a to
Adam Oates. It's perhaps unfair to heap too many expectations upon any rookie NHL coach, particularly one inheriting an underachieving team desperately in need of some direction. So for Oates this likely isn't a make-or-break year. There will probably be some growing pains, a transition period as he and his new squad figure each other out. Still, he is facing a certain amount of heat to finally be The Guy - the guy who gets the team clicking at both ends of the ice, the guy who gets them to play as a cohesive unit, the guy who reenergizes the power play and maybe, just maybe, gets them out of the second round. For better or for worse, his predecessors have left their respective marks on this Caps' team; time for him to do the same.
shiny new contract), the 22-year-old blueliner continues to set the bar pretty high for himself. There's no question that the talent is there, and his performance in the postseason this past spring was a welcome reminder of just how much talent there is. But he'll need to shake off a pretty dismal regular season and carry that playoff groove into his every day, which isn't easy for a young defenseman still finding his legs in the NHL.. As one-half of the team's best defensive tandem (and with the ink not yet dry on a
Tomas Vokoun signed a one-year deal with the team, knocking Holtby back to Hershey and Neuvirth to role of backup once again. A little over a year later and Vokoun is a Penguin, leaving Neuvirth and Holtby to pick up where they left off and battle it out for netminding supremacy. Both are still young, with one solid playoff run under each of their belts, and neither is a shoo-in to be the #1 guy. The fight to claim that title should not only be an interesting one to watch, but will also hopefully bring out the best in both, which is key for a team still searching for that franchise goalie to take the reins.. Last summer it looked as if this was going to be the goaltending tandem upon which the Caps would rely... that is until veteran goaltender
Ted Leonsis and Brooks Laich. This temperature spike doesn't revolve around the number of goals a player needs to score this season or how far the team will go in the playoffs. In fact the heat in this case has very little to do with what happens on the ice - and a great deal to do with whether anything will. For the next few days/weeks/months, the toastiest tushies will belong to Caps' majority owner Ted Leonsis (one of five owner reps in the CBA talks) and Laich, the Caps' player representative to the NHLPA. As negotiations drag on they may be but two voices among hundreds, but they represent our hopes that hockey comes back sooner rather than later.
And for that reason and that reason alone... we hope that they're feeling the heat.