As training camp kicks into high gear, it's about that time to take a look around the Caps' organization - as we do every year - and see who might be under a bit of pressure in the upcoming season. And with new blood behind the bench and in the front office, some new bodies on the blueline and plenty of familiar faces everywhere else, there's more than enough heat to go around. You know the drill by now, but let's walk through it again anyway:
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).
So whose rear is getting roasted this season? Let's take a look:
Alex Ovechkin. This should come as no surprise, as Ovechkin's tail has been squarely in the flames (whether it deserved to be or not) for the better part of his career - and every season that ends without a Stanley Cup in Washington only intensifies the heat. For all the other nonsense narratives that exist around Ovechkin, the singular truth remains that he has yet to capture hockey's ultimate prize. Some of that is on his supporting cast, on management, and on coaches; it would be unfair to place the blame squarely on one man's shoulders, especially one who has stepped up and carried his team on so many occasions.
That said... with five coaches in ten years, numerous individual awards but minimal playoff success, and just a year remaining until his 30th birthday, Ovechkin is running out of time to prove that he can help bring his team to the next step.
Nicklas Backstrom. The other half of Washington's insanely talented scoring duo, Backstrom will continue to show up on this list for as long as Ovechkin does, for one main reason - both have all the talent in the world and nothing to show for it yet. Backstrom's a bit younger than Ovechkin, and has a lower cap hit, and thanks to the massive spotlight on his Russian linemate, gets to fly under the radar a bit. Because of that, the pressure on him to deliver is a bit lower than it is for Ovechkin, but it's certainly still there... especially considering that, despite a point-per-game performance over his regular season career, he has yet to really step it up consistently in the postseason. As one of the veteran leaders on a team in transition, the stakes are high for Backstrom to help guide this team back to contention.
Mike Green. Sensing a theme yet? Green has the same "been here for a long time and still hasn't gotten it done" pressure as Ovechkin, Backstrom and others - but there's a little twist to that pressure where Green is concerned, because along with needing to help lead the team, he also needs to prove he can stay healthy long enough to do so (something which isn't off to a great start). And on top of all of that, he needs to regain his scoring touch; once one of the NHL's top offensive defenseman, Green has seen his production slip in recent years (no doubt in large part to those injury issues), save for glimpses of it that merely served as reminders of what he once was. The talent is still there, though, and with a new coaching staff committed to unleashing that talent - and the added drive of playing for a new contract, here or elsewhere - the pieces are all there for him to have a breakout season.
Braden Holtby. Although he broke out with the team a few years ago after stepping in as a late-season injury replacement, Holtby has yet to be handed the keys to the crease as his and his alone... until now. This is the first year where he gets to start the season as the Caps' official starter, without significant competition to be the #1 guy. How he responds will go a long way toward determining whether this team is a playoff team or on the outside looking in for a second straight year. That's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a guy who just turned 25, but he's certainly proven in the past that he can handle it - and with a much-improved defense in front of him and goalie guru Mitch Korn on his side, he's being given every opportunity to make this a big year. Now he just has to run with it.
Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz. This has been a summer of transition for the Caps, and nowhere was the change more strongly felt than in the front office, with MacLellan and Trotz replacing long-time general manager George McPhee and second-year coach Adam Oates. Each faced different but equally challenging tasks in their new roles. For MacLellan, a member of the organization's old guard, the challenge lay in establishing his independence from his predecessor while making sure the transition was as smooth as possible; for Trotz, it was to take a group of talented but at times divergent players and make them into a team. The early returns for both have been good, but it's a long season, and how each chooses to handle the obstacles they're sure to face - injuries, egos, losing streaks - will be under intense scrutiny. They don't have the same pressure on them as the players at this point, but they were brought in to turn this team around and all eyes will be on them as they attempt to do so.
Brooks Laich. Coming into camp this year, Laich has claimed to be "100% healthy" - but after two seasons of saying that, he has to prove that this time it's actually true. The injury he's struggled with since the lockout is a tricky one, one that obviously needs time (and a late-season procedure) to heal, and in the past he didn't give himself that time. With his cap hit and his ability to play in all situations, the Caps can't afford to not have him as a productive member of the lineup on a regular basis. So far, he's looked like his old self, with five points in six preseason games... now he has to keep it going in the regular season. Because the Caps are just a better team with a healthy Brooks Laich in the lineup.
Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Troy Brouwer. The Caps routinely live and die with whatever offense Alex Ovechkin can provide, but on the off-chance that the Great 8 can "only" score 50 or 60 goals this season, they'll likely need someone else to pick up the slack. That's where these three come in, tasked with giving the team some scoring outside of the top line. Ward, Chimera and Brouwer all set the bar pretty high in 2013-14, providing the bulk of the even-strength scoring (along with Fehr and, of course, Ovechkin) and establishing new career-highs in any number of offensive categories. Now they have to try and replicate that, or at least come close to replicating it. Secondary scoring is the key to any successful team, and it starts with this trio.
Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Not many teams made a bigger splash this offseason than the Caps, rolling out huge multimillion contracts to a couple of former Pittsburgh defensemen in an attempt to shore up a blueline in desperate need of assistance. There's no question that, in the immediate future, the additions of Orpik and Niskanen make the team much better and deeper on defense - but with great money comes great responsibility, and the pressure is now on both to prove that they are worth the money they're getting. That's not an easy burden to take on, and NHL history is littered with players who slipped or even crumbled under the weight of a huge new contract. Both are veterans, and should be able to handle it... or at least the Caps are betting $11.25 million a year for the next five years that they will.
Evgeny Kuznetsov. It was a long time in the making - almost four years, to be exact - but after signing with the team back in March, Kuznetsov finally made his NHL debut, suiting up for the opener of a doubleheader against the Penguins and appearing in the season's last 17 games. He got off to a strong start, with his first multipoint outing in just his third game, and nine points total; now the pressure is on for him to take the next step, to continue adapting to the North American game. That it's not more heat speaks to the fact that no one expects him to be the savior of the team (as we've noted in the past) - but he is a little warm, because after four years we need to know that he was worth the wait.
Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson. The Caps have a bevy of first-round picks on their current roster, at varying stages of development. Among those first-rounders are Alzner and Johansson, who are caught somewhere in the middle - so close to taking the next step but not quite there yet. Alzner is now 26, Johansson 24; the time is now for them to show that their development is on track for first-rounders, especially with both playing positions that have become increasingly crowded. The heat is a bit higher on Johansson, who is heading into a contract year and needs to have a big season to earn a new contract... especially since it's becoming tougher to see just where he fits in on the Caps' roster.