With the regular season about to get underway, it’s time once again to partake in our (almost) annual tradition of determining just who among the Caps - players and suits alike - might be feeling the heat. They got a bit of a reprieve for that whole “winning the Stanley Cup” thing... but it’s been a whole year since that happened and some of those buns might be feeling a little toasty again.
A reminder from previous incarnations, the rundown remains the same:
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).
This season may be a little different, of course, as those years of frustration and disappointment have, for the most part, gone by the wayside thanks to June 2018. Now a lot of the pressure and heat may be coming from within the organization as much as from outside.
So who might be feeling the heat this season? Let’s take a look:
The Capitals are arguably the most stacked team in the League on the defensive left side, but that strength isn’t just at the NHL level. The Capitals are also flush on the left side at the prospect level. Alexander Alexeyev, Lucas Johansen, and Martin Fehervary are gnashing at the teeth to play in the NHL and aren’t far behind. Even players like Tobias Geisser and Bobby Nardella could eventually push for a spot. This depth means the players at the NHL level could be on the hot seat.
As witnessed this summer, cap space is king. The Capitals will have to make some tough decisions just to get under the cap by October 1st. This means the brass are looking for any chance to bring in cheaper but good talent moving forward. That means Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, and Christian Djoos need to watch their backs. If they show any type of decline and any of the three prospects mentioned above seem to be thriving then watch out. Siegenthaer seems to be the only safe left handed defensemen due to his age, cost, and play.
After playing top pairing minutes in Detroit, Jensen came over to the Capitals at the end of February. While in Detroit, Jensen was amazing, ranked near the top of the league in just about all defensive analytics. But to the surprise of many he struggled a bit while on a much better team in Washington. Granted, he was jerked around the lineup, playing on all sorts of different pairs and even playing the left side once Kempny got injured, and it was obvious he wasn’t able to get comfortable. That shouldn’t be too big of a concern - adjusting to a new team can take time, and he’ll have a full camp under his belt this time - but if for some reason he can’t, he may find his minutes on the decline.
Two years into the big eight-year deal he inked in the summer of 2017, Oshie has lived up to his contract and then some... so far. The trick now is for him to keep doing so, which only gets harder the older he gets — and isn’t helped by injuries that keep him out long-term. With the expansion draft looming and the Caps up against the wall when it comes to salary cap space, Oshie will have to continue to prove that he’s worth the money.
As has previously been discussed, this is a pivotal season for Copley. Although he put together a decent effort in his first outing as a backup, his salary - and the emergence of two of the Caps’ netminding prospects, most notably Ilya Samsonov - could cost him the gig this time around. Add that to the fact that no one quite knows what will happen with Braden Holtby next season, and there are a lot of unknowns. The best way to deal with uncertainty? Play so well that none of it matters.
Last year, Wilson made a statement that (after serving his lengthy suspension to start the season) he was more than just some goon who gets suspended a lot. He finished the season with 22 goals (his first 20+ goal campaign) and 40 points in just 63 games, earning a spot on the team’s top line and chipping in on special teams, as well. Now the trick is to keep that momentum going, all while staying out of the penalty box and — more importantly — away from the Department of Player Safety. He’s only valuable to this team if he actually plays for them.
It’s probably safe to say that Vrana’s new contract was Priority #1 for the Caps this summer, and they got it done with a nice bridge deal that should set Vrana up for a pretty decent payday when it expires... if he continues to evolve. He should see more time on the power play this season (43 of his impressive 47 points were earned at even strength last year), which will likely boost that point total. He just needs to find some consistency to his game and prove that he deserves a top-six spot every night.
Just a year removed from a breakout season that arguably could have culminated in a Conn Smythe trophy, Kuznetsov continues a bit of a troubling pattern of being great one season (see 2015-16 and 2017-18) and not so much the next (2016-17 and of course last year). If you believe in patterns, that should have him in line for another strong year... if he wants to have one, that is. And with Nicklas Backstrom in the last year of his contract and Alex Ovechkin heading toward his mid-30s, the Caps will increasingly be looking to Kuznetsov to step up his game on a more consistent basis. After a tumultuous summer and a rough 2018-19 season, he’s got a lot to make up for - and a lot to prove.
Having been put in a difficult (albeit enviable) situation of having to take over the reins of a Cup-winning squad, Reirden understandably had a long leash in his rookie campaign There’s simply no way to improve the team, and it’s very difficult to even match the performance of the previous season — especially when your team is as tired as the Caps looked at times during the first half of the year.
But Cup windows are small and coaching tenures are notoriously brief; simply guiding the team through some doldrums and making the playoffs just won’t do for a team that knows what it’s like to win. Reirden learned a lot last year, including a tough lesson in the playoffs — and with a defensively improved team to coach, he should have the tools he needs to turn his sophomore season behind the bench into a success.
Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom
It seems impossible to think about an iteration of this Capitals team without one or both of these guys, but the nature of the business being what it is and the salary cap being what it is, there’s a good chance that at least one will be gone by next summer. That sad thought aside, this also means that the Caps have two high-end players heading into a contract year — good for the team, but the pressure is on both of them to perform well enough to earn their next big deal.
The Caps made some significant upgrades to the defensive side of their bottom six this summer, bringing in players with reputations for stronger protection of the puck and penalty-killing skills. While that’s an area in which the Caps needed to improve, it’s worth noting that in bringing in these new players - and losing the players they did - there could be a drop-off in offensive production. The onus will be on the new guys to try and at least somewhat replicate what their predecessors did.
It’s pretty widely accepted that the Caps underwent a culture change that eventually led to a Cup once Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were brought in as free agents back in 2015. With their departure - Niskanen by trade, Orpik via retirement - it now falls on the rest of the leadership group to help keep the team focused on maintain the same culture that has been established over the last few years. The good news? They know it works.