With the regular season just underway, 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 2016-17. As has been the case over the last six 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:
Lars Eller. The newest Cap comes to DC with a ton of potential, a coach with a defined role for him and linemates who will likely be more talented than those he most often skated with in Montreal. None of that is a guarantee that Eller will be an instant success - or even a success at all - but the Caps are certainly hoping he'll be a difference-maker in the lineup, and gave up two draft picks on the chance that he would be. And while a third-line center probably won't be the sole reason for wins on most nights, the addition of Eller gives the Caps something they desperately need to take the next step: depth.
Tom Wilson. Wilson's already come a long way in his first few seasons in the NHL, evolving from the teenager who dropped the gloves every chance he got to a physical forward who is becoming one of the team's more reliable penalty killers. For Wilson, this is an important season - he needs to define himself, and his role, on a team with serious Cup aspirations. That means taking another step forward in his development, finding more of an offensive touch and proving that he can be the type of player the Caps have been hoping he'd become since they drafted him.
Andre Burakovsky. After struggling at the start of last season, Burakovsky seemed to find his stride - and his confidence - on a new-look second line. His offensive production picked up around the halfway point of the year and he piled up the points, only to see the points trail off by April and into the playoffs. This time around, the key needs to be consistency; he's already taken steps to address the mental blocks that held him back last year, which is good, because the team will lean on him to provide secondary scoring.
Dmitry Orlov. Contract negotiations with Orlov dragged out perhaps a bit longer than most people thought they would, but ultimately the two sides agreed to a one-year deal - and that gives Orlov one year to prove that he not only deserves a bigger contract next summer, but also is capable of holding down a top-four spot on the blueline. He's had a year back from the wrist injury that cost him a season, and the results so far have been somewhat uneven; that's not going to cut it from an individual perspective, and it's not going to cut it on a team that doesn't have a whole lot of defensive depth right now.
Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. Brought in to bolster the team's top-six forwards last summer, Williams and Oshie wasted little time getting comfortable with their new team and were pivotal to the success the Caps had in 2015-16. But that regular-season success didn't translate to the postseason glory many expected, and now they each likely have just one more shot with this group to get it right. There's a reason that GM Brian MacLellan aligned the team's Cup window with the contracts of these two forwards; next summer holds a lot of uncertainty, for Williams and Oshie as well as the Caps as a whole. The time to win is now, and the Caps will need both of them firing on all cylinders to do it.
Evgeny Kuznetsov. Despite having a little over a full NHL season under his belt, last year really marked Kuznetsov's emergence as a budding star in the League. He led the Caps in points, which is no easy task - in fact, he was the first player not named Alex Ovechkin to hold the team's scoring lead since before Ovechkin was an NHLer. But despite his stellar season overall, Kuznetsov saw his production trail off towards the end of the season and was practically invisible during the playoffs, registering just two points in 12 games. There's no question the pure skill is there; now he needs to put it together consistently, especially if he's going to be the one driving the top line.
John Carlson. Last season was a strong one offensively for Carlson, but at times he struggled on the defensive side of things (although how much of that was being paired with Brooks Orpik is up for debate). It also marked the first season in which he missed any games due to injury, missing about a quarter of a season and not looking 100% in 100% of the games he did play. The Caps need someone to be the stud defenseman that seemingly every winning team has had in recent years, and at almost 27 years old, now is the time for Carlson to prove that - when healthy - he's that guy.
Alex Ovechkin. Every year, like clockwork. As long as he wears the "C" on his chest, and the mantle of franchise player on his head, the team will always be on his shoulders. The good news is that he doesn't seem to be slowing down all that much. The better news is that his supporting cast is pretty strong, giving him likely one of the best shots he'll have to finally win the one thing that's eluded him: a Stanley Cup.
Nicklas Backstrom. Like Ovechkin, Backstrom's success is inextricably linked with the success of the team, and he'll face the same pressures as one of the team's leaders to help carry the team to where it's never been before. This year there's a twist, with Backstrom potentially being relied upon (at least to start the season) to create offense away from his usual partner in crime. It's an interesting challenge for someone who has eternally been in Ovechkin's shadow (while simultaneously helping Ovechkin achieve the greatness that he has), and it's up to him to show that he's more than just Ovechkin's sidekick... especially come playoff time.
Barry Trotz. For all his success as a coach, for all his ability to create a family atmosphere and a winning mentality, Trotz has struggled with the same thing the Caps have - namely, getting out of the second round. There's no question that he's the right coach for this group right now, but eventually the results have to be there, and so far they just haven't. This season, he's got the group of guys to make it happen, and he's got the coaching knowledge and staff to make it happen. Now he has to make it happen.
Braden Holtby. Winning a Vezina Trophy is both impressive and tough to do; tougher still, however, is following up that performance with one just as good or better. It's hard to see Holtby slipping too much (if at all) this season, and that's good, because while this Caps team is good on paper they'll likely still need him to be great on a regular basis. Staying healthy is also key, as there's no telling what he could have done last spring had he not suffered a knee injury during the playoffs.
Brian MacLellan. The architect of this team has consistently identified and addressed ways to fix the team, and there's no question that the group he's put together is good enough - on paper - to win it all this year. MacLellan is betting a lot on that happening, too, even going so far as to state openly that the Caps have a two-year window to win the Cup. Well, this is Year Two, and with a number of contracts expiring next summer and big decisions to be made, there's a lot riding on Year Two being The Year.
The 2016-17 Washington Capitals. They've done the same dance for so many years... but now it's time to take the lead. Enough of the dominant regular seasons followed by early playoff exits. Enough of "next year" and "someday". It's this group, this season, that has to take the next step - because there's a lot of uncertainty and potential change coming to the roster, and the window may indeed be closing.