Sometimes, you just can’t choose one.
Especially when picking which Capital faces the most pressure this season. Few teams head into the 2014-15 campaign more dramatically altered; after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, both the coach (Adam Oates) and GM (George McPhee) were turfed in a significant organizational overhaul. The goal, clearly, was to re-tool a group who’s Stanley Cup window is still (theoretically) open, because that’s what you do when you have a three-time MVP — Alex Ovechkin — in the prime of his career.
So yeah. Pressure abounds.
We’ll start with Ovechkin, who’s coming off a truly bizarre campaign. He was the only player in the NHL to eclipse the 50-goal plateau last season, but also the owner of the league’s third-worst plus-minus rating (minus-35) and, as such, was subjected to scathing, relentless criticism of his defensive play and leadership abilities. There’s no need to go into great detail here as the knocks on Ovechkin are well known; it’s fair to say he exists in a constant state of pressure.
In goal, there’s Braden Holtby. Two years ago, the untested youngster burst onto the scene as a media darling, leading Washington to an upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in the opening playoff round. Despite getting pelted by shots (248 over the seven game series), Holtby finished with a .940 save percentage, then nearly helped the Caps topple the Rangers in Round 2 and looked to be Washington’s goalie of the future… but that narrative was interrupted last season, when Holtby couldn’t find his game, lost playing opportunities and acknowledged he struggled with his confidence.
Behind the bench, there’s Barry Trotz. All he needs to do in his first year as coach — after spending the last 15 seasons in Nashville — is have Caps do a virtual 180, instill his defensive philosophies and try to coax another level out of Ovechkin (who, it’s worth noting, is now on his fifth head coach.)
How about those free agents? Those would be former Penguins defensemen Matt Niksanen and Brooks Orpik, both of whom signed mega-deals with Washington this summer. Niskanen, who’d never made more than $2.3 million in a single season, inked for a whopping $40.25M over seven years while Orpik, who turns 34 in September, signed for $27.5 million over five years… a deal that Trotz later admitted the Caps “took some heat” over.
(You could argue pressure from these deals should get kicked upstairs, and land on the desk of new GM Brian MacLellan. And you’d be making a legit argument if you did.)
The list goes on and on. Brooks Laich, who’s name was floated as a potential buyout candidate this summer, is under pressure to finally get healthy and justify his place as Washington’s third highest-paid forward behind Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Two-time Norris finalists Mike Green’s under pressure to perform in a contract year. There’s a lot riding on Evgeni Kuznetsov to make good on the hype and produce in his first full NHL campaign and, heck, there’s probably some pressure on Tom Wilson to improve on last year’s decent rookie campaign, and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
With that said, let’s queue up the theme song!