Theme: “Success and failure are greatly overrated. But failure gives you a whole lot more to talk about.”
Hildegard Knef probably never played hockey – she was a German actress – but she might have described Mike Green’s 2009-2010 season many years before the fact. Green had what, by the usual statistical measures, was one of the most impressive seasons – not counting his own the previous season – in recent memory. He became the first defenseman to lead all defensemen in points in consecutive years since Brian Leetch did it in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 seasons, and he had the most combined points in consecutive years in almost two decades. And, he had generally solid ten-game segments…
Green actually improved on a year in which he set an all-time record for goals scored in consecutive games by a defenseman. He played in more games (75 to 68), had more assists (57 to 42), more points (76 to 73), a better plus/minus (+39 to +24), fewer penalty minutes (54 to 68), more hits (133 to 86), fewer giveaways (73 to 95). And just like last season, Green finished high in the rankings among defensemen in a variety of statistics:
Goals: 19 (1st)
Assists: 57 (1st)
Points : 76 (1st)
Plus/Minus: +39 (2nd)
Power Play Goals: 10 (1st)
Power Play Assists: 25 (1st)
Power Play Points: 35 (1st)
Game-Winning Goals: 4 (T-2nd)
Time-on-Ice/Game: 25:28 (9th)
In spite of all of that, Green might as well have been a dead carp left on the counter for a week. He was toxic as a potential member of the Canadian men’s hockey Olympic team – “There are parts of his game that we’d need to see improved upon before he’s ready to play in the Olympics” was the way Steve Yzerman tried to put it diplomatically. He would be pooh-pooh’ed as a potential Norris Trophy winner. Can’t play defense. He’s a fourth forward. What’s with the hair? It was a rather consistent, mind-numbing, head-pounding narrative, and not an entirely unfair one.
But what Green had was a reasonably consistent – if not record-settting – season in terms of goal scoring. What inconsistency he had in the offensive end had to do with his production on the power play, as his ten-game splits suggest.
This is something of a classic era in terms of young defensemen with bright futures. Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn, Erik Johnson, Victor Hedman, Zach Bogosian, to name just a few. Green, at the age of 24, is certainly in that group. And this season cemented Green' status as the top offensive defenseman of this era. He was ridiculously productive against Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs. In 24 games against the other seven teams making the post-season, he was 8-20-28, plus-32.
Defensively, to put the best spin on it, Green is a work in progress. Consider that as recently as the 2006-2007 season, Green was averaging only twenty seconds a night on the penalty kill on a team that was bad in that respect. OK, it isn’t really any better (actually it’s worse – 78.8 percent for the regular season versus 80.2 percent in that season), but Green is assuming a larger role in penalty killing – 2:09 in PK ice time a night this past season.
One could not say, however, that the increase in shorthanded ice time came with an increase in effectiveness at 4-on-5 play. Of the 92 defensemen who played at least 60 games this season and averaged at least two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, only 24 defensemen had a worse goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes than Green (according to behindthenet.ca). Even though you will find some names of note below Green on that list (Dan Hamhuis, Dennis Seidenberg, Scott Niedermayer, and Rob Scuderi among them), penalty killing is still very much an area that could use improvement for Green.
It does get better – somewhat – for Green at even strength. Among defensemen playing in at least 60 games with at least 15 minutes a game at 5-on-5, Green ranked 37th among 110 defensemen in goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes of ice time this past season. He still has a way to go to catch the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Chris Pronger, Rob Scuderi, and Rob Blake, to name a few who ranked better, to join the top rank of defensemen who are effective in their own zone.
What is something of a festering problem for Green is one alluded to by Steve Yzerman in explaining his decision to select Drew Doughty over Green for a spot on the Canadian men’s ice hockey Olympic team… “We feel [Doughty] can handle pressure situations,” the clear inference being that Green cannot. It is hard to avoid noticing that including this year’s post season performance against Montreal, Green is 1-14-15, minus-5 in his last 25 playoff games. Against the Canadiens in the opening round of this year’s playoffs, Green was 0-3-3, plus-1. He also was on the ice for 10 of the 20 goals Montreal scored in the playoffs. Even with the heavy ice time Green got – he led all Caps with 26:01 in average ice time for the series – that is a high percentage of on-ice goals against.
In the wake of the disappointing playoff exit against Montreal, Green declined to speak to the press. The press being, well, the press, they seemed to take offense at the slight, but Green did speak to reporters a few days later. Parsing any athlete’s commentary isn’t always a productive exercise, but a point was made, then returned to by Green in his remarks…
“The tough part for me is that it takes 82 more games to get another opportunity. That's a long time… Now we have to play 82 games to prepare ourselves to play like a playoff team for next season.”
It is, in a sense, the right thing to say in that it ackowledges that for the Caps, they will now be judged on playoff performance, not posting big numbers in the regular season. But concerning the regular season, this comment caught our attention…
“I think mentally I was preparing myself for the playoffs to play strong defensively. When all season you're an offensive-minded player, and you get criticized about your defensive play, you try to adjust to become that complete player. Going into the playoffs, I wanted to play strong defensively. And maybe that [affected] my offense."
Intuitively, it makes little sense to think that a player can magically shift from one style to another merely as a product of starting the playoffs. Developing those skills is a task for that regular season, part of the preparation for the post season. Green has become a better defensive defenseman in his five seasons in the NHL. Next season he is going to have to display similar improvement in those 82 games leading to the playoffs if he is to be a more complete, not to mention successful, defenseman heading into the post-season. And maybe we'll have less to talk about.