With the regular season just around the corner, it's time once again to partake in our annual tradition of determining just who among the Caps - players and suits alike - might be feeling the heat in 2015-16. As has been the case over the last five years, the rundown remains the same, to wit:
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 who's feeling toasty this time around? Let's take a look:
Nicklas Backstrom. He's become the most prolific playmaker in franchise history and continues to be one of the more underrated talents in the League. And yet as great as he has been over the course of his career, questions have risen in recent years about his ability to stay healthy and his inability to consistently perform in the playoffs (although it should be noted that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive). He's already behind the eight ball on the health issue, as he could miss up to a month of the regular season while continuing to recover from offseason hip surgery.
How well he bounces back from that, how healthy he's able to stay the rest of the year and what he's able to accomplish this spring, should the Caps return to the postseason? All factors that will help determine just how far the team goes this season.
Braden Holtby. With a solid defense in front of him, a stellar goalie coach behind him and the skills we always knew were there, Holtby was able to turn in a career year last season that left no doubt as to who the Caps' number one goaltender is for the foreseeable future. (Of course, the five-year deal he signed over the summer didn't hurt to erase any lingering doubt, either.) New contract in hand, he pushed his way into the conversation as one of the League's best - which means that all eyes will be on him to see if he can repeat or if it was just a fluke.
Alex Ovechkin. He's done just about everything he can do from a personal standpoint to help his team win, from scoring all the goals to proving yet again just how adaptable he can be to change (despite lazy reports to the contrary). All of that means that, for the first time in a long time, there seems to be a general acknowledgment that it's not just on him - that the team needs to pick him up the way he's been picking them up for most of his career. That doesn't mean the heat is completely off, of course. As long as he wears that 'C' (and frankly even if he didn't) this is, for better or for worse, his team... and their successes and failures are forever intertwined with his reputation.
John Carlson. The loss of Mike Green will have an impact on the whole lineup, but no one will be expected to shoulder as much of the burden in his absence as Carlson. He's already become the go-to guy on the power play, but he'll need to take on even more responsibility in that department to make up for the offense provided by Green with the extra man (to say nothing of the points he put up at even strength). Carlson is coming off of a career year, and is still only in his early 20s, so chances are he's still got some untapped potential on both sides of the puck. At least, that's what we're all hoping.
Barry Trotz. In his first year behind the bench, Trotz brought a defensive responsibility to an offensively-gifted team and rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin. So... what does he do for a follow up? To put it simply, more. Brian MacLellan has given him a roster with very few holes and very high expectations. Now he has to deliver, and do something that neither he nor the current incarnation of Caps has done: get past the second round. The talent is there and the Eastern Conference is anyone's game, so the pressure is on for him to make it happen once and for all.
Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov took a huge step forward in his development towards the end of last season and into the playoffs, where he scored big (and beautiful) goals. He's proven that he's capable of carrying second-line center duties, filling a role that's been empty for far too long - but with Backstrom on the shelf for the foreseeable future, he'll have to step into a top-line role. With that comes bigger responsibilities, tougher competition and the enviable/unenviable job of making sure Alex Ovechkin can still put up the big numbers on a nightly basis.
Brian MacLellan. In his year and change as the Caps' general manager, MacLellan has been very clear about what the team's needs are, and for two straight summers he has gone out and addressed them. The result is a team which, on paper at least, could be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. So why is he on the hot seat? Because the toughest job lies ahead. He's taken care of the obvious needs; now he'll need to focus on the smaller ones, the tweaks and adjustments necessary to build a champion over a long season. And as he himself has acknowledged, that proverbial "window of opportunity" may be closing for this team.
Brooks Orpik. Last summer, Orpik was one of two big money, long-term acquisitions brought in to provide a much-needed boost to the team's blueline; his first season with the Caps saw him getting big minutes alongside Carlson on the team's top defensive pair. The numbers weren't great, but he did seem to provide some value as far as presence on the ice and off - so now he's got to get those numbers up to where all of those intangibles reportedly have been from the start. He needs to justify that he's worth the money and the minutes being doled out... something that gets a bit tricker as a just-turned 35-year-old recovering from offseason surgery.
T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. The Caps' big need over the summer was to fill in the forward depth - and that need was taken care of twofold with the trade acquisition of Oshie and the signing of UFA Williams. Each has a different skillset, a different level of experience and a different role to play, but both bring with them high expectations of what they can achieve in Caps' red - or more importantly, what they can help the Caps to achieve as a team. Williams may not see himself as a savior, but in a sense, both he and Oshie carry that mantle. No pressure? No... pressure.
Special Teams. Despite recent improvements, this Caps' squad has not been one that relies solely on strong play at even strength, leaning instead on a an insanely dominant power play and at least a passable penalty kill to carry them through the season. The recent departures of some longtime Caps in Eric Fehr, Mike Green, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward means that those special teams are going to have a new look come October 10 - which also means that at least a few players will get an opportunity to take on a new role, while others will need to step up.
Brooks Laich. For what seems to be the millionth time, Laich is "100% healthy" and ready to go this season, which is good, if true. He's talked of wanting to do more this year, and his GM has said the same - so now it's time for him to work on returning to the type of player he used to be, if perhaps in a more reduced role than in year's past.
Marcus Johansson. One of just a handful of players to go all the way through arbitration over the summer, Johansson was able to turn a career season into a pretty decent one-year deal. That gives him one year to prove that a) it wasn't a fluke and b) he's able to carve out a spot for himself in an increasingly crowded lineup. With the arrival of Oshie and Williams (and the potential addition of Derek Roy), the opportunities for Johansson to pile up points just aren't going to be there as they've been in the past. Can he come close to replicating his 2014-15 performance in this new-look lineup? Time will tell.
Tom Wilson. In two full seasons as an NHLer, Wilson has established himself as a big, physical presence on the ice who can - and will - drop the gloves whenever needed (and sometimes when it's not). What he hasn't done, at least not yet, is show that he can be more of the well-rounded power forward the Caps were likely hoping he would be when they drafted him in the first round. He's talked about wanting to take on a bigger role this season, and his coach agrees - now it's up to him to take what should be an increase in ice time, and perhaps some special teams work, and run with it.
Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer's been seen as the heir apparent to the Caps' goaltending throne since being drafted five years ago, the next in a continuing line of homegrown netminders. And while he's probably not going to unseat Holtby anytime soon, he's finally getting his shot at a full-time NHL gig as Holtby's backup. He's already performed admirably in limited NHL action, and earned his first playoff start - and win - this past spring; the Caps are hoping he can continue to do so consistently in order to spell Holtby on a more regular basis and give the team a solid one-two punch in net.
Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov. One is recovering from a season away from the game due to injury; the other, a season filled with ups and downs and a long-term injury of his own. Together they make up the team's likely third defensive pair - and a potentially good one, at that, if they can continue their evolution and shake off any growing pains (and rust). There won't be quite as much pressure on them as there is on the team's top-four defensemen, but with the absence of Green, there's plenty to be done to fill the void - and in a potentially tough divisional battle, little time to do so.