Sunday, September 06, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Mike Green

Mike Green

Theme: So… what have you done for me lately?

Record-setting goal scorer among defensemen, first-team NHL all star, runner-up for the Norris Trophy. You’d think that on the heels of such a season, such a player would be hailed as one of the top two or three defensemen in the NHL.

Well, not these days. Mike Green is given little better than an even chance to make his country’s Olympic hockey team, and there are whispers – ok, shouts in some quarters – that he’s less of a defenseman and more of a fourth forward.

That’s what a month in the spring will do. Despite finishing the regular season as the league’s top scoring defenseman in goals (31), power play goals (18), and points (73); despite finishing the season fifth in plus-minus among defensemen (while playing in only 68 games); despite finishing tied for third among defensemen in game-winning goals; despite finishing with more goals and points in a season than Scott Niedermayer has ever had in his career, more goals in a season than in any in the career of Nicklas Lidstrom, and more points in a season than in all but one season of Lidstrom’s career, no Capital seems to have more questions attached to his outlook for the upcoming season than does Mike Green. And that is the result of a month of playoff games last spring in which he was 1-8-9, -5, in 14 games, and didn’t have a goal in his last eight games (tied for his longest drought of the season). Worse, no defenseman in the playoffs had more giveaways than the 25 that Green had in only those 14 games.

That finish was a sour ending to a fine season, and it seemed to validate the view held by some folks that Green simply isn’t that good a defenseman. Statistically, he is not as bad a defenseman as some would assume. His plus-24 was best among Capitals defensemen (almost twice as good as Jeff Schultz’ plus-13). He had the highest Corsi rating on the team and was third best in goal-against-per-60-minutes (5-on-5) while facing the third highest quality of competition on the club (minimum 30 games played), according to Green’s problem is not so much “half-court” defense as it is another problem, one already hinted at – turnovers. He finished second among NHL defensemen in giveaways last season. That makes for a lot of puck-chasing transition defense, which really isn’t the sort of thing the Capitals are going to be successful in executing if they – including defensemen like Green – are pressing their attack at the other end.

Part of the problem Green has is one that a point guard has in basketball – when he’s on the ice, he’s spends more time than others carrying the puck up ice. He is going to have more opportunities, for lack of a better word, for turning the puck over. But the fact remains that unless he can improve that aspect of his game, he – and the Capitals in general – are going to struggle defensively, and Green is going to be seen as a somewhat one-dimensional “offensive” defenseman, not the standard for two-way defense that Niedermayer and Lidstrom represent.

Fearless: If you drill into that giveaway number, the comparison of Green to Niedermayer and Lidstrom becomes even starker. Lidstrom averaged one giveaway for every 42 minutes of ice time last year, Niedermayer one in every 30 minutes. Green averaged one every 18 minutes. In the playoffs, that was one giveaway every 14 minutes. The silver lining here is that we’re making comparisons to two guys who have already had their plaques made for the Hockey Hall of Fame; we’re just waiting for the induction ceremonies down the road. And Green won’t turn 24 until the second week of the season. Lidstrom came into the league as a fully-formed, productive defenseman at both ends, but he might be among the top five defensemen ever to play in the NHL. Niedermayer wasn’t “Niedermayer” until perhaps his sixth or seventh full season. And if defensive defensemen take a while to mature, so should it be expected that the defensive side of Green’s game should be the last part of his repertoire to mature. He is, now, the best offensive defenseman in the game.

Cheerless: I was cruising the Interweb (“Internet,” doofus) and saw an article by this Pierre LeBrun guy, and he said this about Green and the playoffs… “There were questions about Green's fitness level. He simply wasn't the same blueliner come playoff time. He lacked confidence with the puck. I won't soon forget the night of the Capitals' Game 7 second-round loss to the Penguins. A distraught Green never came out to talk to the media, likely devastated by what he knew was a subpar playoff performance.” How long does that linger with a player? If Green gets off to a bad start, are the whispers going to start all over? If he’s held off the Canadian Olympic team, does his star start to fade?

In the end…

Green suffered an awkward spill in the Ranger series that might have left him physically sub-par for the remainder of the playoffs. That seems as likely an explanation of the drop-off in his performance as his “fitness level.” But if there is a player in the NHL less lacking for motivation than Mike Green, we’d appreciate your pointing him out to us. He finished second in the Norris Trophy voting, had a weak series against the Rangers, a poor series against the Penguins, might not make the Canadian Olympic team, and is being called out in just about any hockey publication you can find. But here’s the thing, Green has improved in each of his full seasons in the NHL on a per-82 game basis in goals (from two to 18 to 37), assists (from 12-38-51), points (from 14 to 56 to 88), plus-minus (from -12 to +6 to +29). This year, though, one can imagine a Green with a great deal more focus at both ends of the ice… unless he hears the whispers.


77 games, 24-48-72, +26

No comments: