Monday, September 13, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Defensemen -- Mike Green

Mike Green

Theme: “Play your game… play your game…”

-- Herb Brooks

He’s a forward in defenseman’s clothing.  He’s weak in his own end.  He’s a no show for the playoffs.  Say things often enough, and folks might believe them.  And these sorts of things get said often enough about Mike Green.  Perhaps it is the price one pays for being a Norris Trophy-finalist caliber defenseman for the past two years, but not having the same level of success in the post season.  Mike Green has been a point-a-game defenseman over his last 184 regular season games dating back to the 2007-2008 season.  Over that time Green is 58-126-184, plus-71 (a 26-56-82, plus-32 82-game pace).  Unfortunately (except for his critics) he is also 4-15-19, minus-6 in 28 playoff games over that span of time.

It’s tough for anyone in any walk of life to perform comfortably at a high level with people whispering in your ear that you need to do this, that, or the other thing.  It is worse when they’re fairly shouting it in newsprint, television, and new media sites.  Then again, that is the price one pays for being a professional in a high-profile occupation such as NHL hockey player.  And it would seem that the only way Mike Green is going to silence his critics is to do what he does – play his game – not play the game commentators or fans want him to play.

And what game is that?  Well, first and foremost, he is the best offensive defenseman in this era of hockey.  Last year, among defensemen playing in at least 50 games, Green was first in goals, first in assist, first in points, first in power play goals, first in power play assists, first in power play points, first in plus/minus outside his own division (take that Southeast Division haters), second in overall plus/minus, second in game-winning goals.  He was first in goals scored/on ice-per-60 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from, second in goals on/goals off-per-60-minutes differential at 5-on-5 (to teammate Jeff Schultz), first in the differential in goals scored for on ice to goals scored for off ice-per-60 minutes at 5-on-5, second in penalties drawn, and first in penalties drawn per 60 minutes.

There is not a defenseman in his class at the offensive end of the rink.

But the problem is defense.  For instance…

-  Green doesn’t block shots.  Well, he had more blocked shots per 60 minutes than Duncan Keith. And Shea Weber.

-  Green doesn’t hit.  Well, he had more hits than Robyn Regehr (in six fewer games) and Chris Pronger (in seven fewer games).

-  Green doesn’t play against the opponent’s best.  Well, his quality of competition ( was better than that faced by Jay Bouwmeester or Kevin Bieksa.

-  Green is too loosey-goosey with the puck.  Well, he had as many giveaways as Drew Doughty and fewer than Chris Phillips.

-- Green is on the ice for too many goals.  Well, he was on the ice for fewer goals-per-60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Dan Hamhuis, Dion Phaneuf, and Shea Weber.

-  Green doesn’t kill penalties.  Well, he had more shorthanded ice time per game than Doughty, Phaneuf, or Weber.

Is Green going to be a finalist for the mythical Rod Langway Award for best defensive defenseman?  No, but neither does he need a work visa to skate into his own end of the ice.

Green’s problem, as it were, is two-fold.  First, there is the playoff thing.  In his first dip into playoff waters, he was 3-4-7 against the Flyers in a first round loss in 2008.  But the following year against the Rangers and Penguins, he was 1-8-9, minus-5 and was beaten to a pulp by Penguin forecheckers in the second round loss to the eventual Cup champions.  Last spring, he was held to three assists in the first round loss to Montreal.  If you are the best offensive defenseman in the league and don’t generate a lot by way of offense in the playoffs, your reputation is going to take a hit.  But this is a problem that Green can repair, perhaps by channeling his inner Herb Brooks… “play your game…play your game.” 

The second problem is one beyond Green’s immediate ability to solve, although as with anything, winning will help.  That is the continuing meme in the media with respect to his defense, or lack of it in that narrative.  Despite a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary, Green is diminished relative to, say, his Norris Trophy competition because he doesn’t – in that telling – play defense.  It is one thing to be primarily an offensive defenseman, and it is quite another to be a liability as a defender.  Green is the former, not (at least not nearly as often as his critics would contend) the latter.  We are not claiming that Green is the guy you want on the ice in the last minute protecting a one-goal lead, but chances are he had an important part in getting you that lead in the first place.  Perhaps he just needs to play his game and think to himself “$#@% you!” with respect to that media narrative.

Fearless:  3, 12, 56, 73, 76.  Minus-8, minus-10, plus-6, plus-24, plus-39.  What else do you want of a 24-year old defenseman but this kind of improvement in points and plus/minus?  He is a minutes-eater, he is probably top-three in terms of his ability to skate the puck out of trouble (although the end-to-end stuff doesn’t often yield results). By any standard you care to offer, he is an elite defenseman.

Cheerless:  In nine elimination games in the playoffs in his career, Green is 1-4-5, even, with nine shots on goal.  If the Caps are to get over the hump, those numbers have to be better.

In the end…

Green suffers the fact that Norris Trophy voters seem to have found religion with respect to their opinion on who is and who is not worthy.  It is the “in” thing to sing the praises of a defender’s defense.  True, that is pretty much the position description (or at least part of the position title), but somehow it now seems to be worn as a badge of the voter’s sophistication as much as it is an evaluation of the player’s talent when voting on such things. 

But frankly, while a Norris Trophy would probably look nice on the Green mantel, the object of the exercise is a different piece of hardware.  And for the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, Green is going to have to achieve a level of play closer to that he exhibited in the regular season the past three years.  He certainly has it in him.  Here is a stunning line from last season:  8-20-28, plus-34.  That was his record in 24 games against the other seven teams in the Eastern Conference making the playoffs.  He had goals against five of those teams (against the other two – Boston and Pittsburgh – he played in only two games apiece), he had points against all of them, and he was at least plus-3 against all of them. 

Perhaps now having 28 games of playoff experience under his belt, the gap between his regular season and playoff performance will narrow for the better.  That might end up being the most important ingredient to an historic season for the Caps…

…if he just plays his game.


77 games, 20-58-78, plus-28

Capitals Rookie Camp 2010 -- Day 2

Day 2… measurement.

Today’s rookie session was another two-parter. The first one involved no pucks and no goalies. It was a measurement session, timing the players in a variety of skating drills. For many of these players, it was a follow-up to similar drills performed at development camp in July – a half-circuit sprint around the ice, a blue-line-to-blue-line sprint from a standing start, and an S-course drill around the faceoff circles. No one blew a gasket (although Anton Gustafsson did take a header in the skate around as the session was starting), Marcus Johansson did, however, almost clip the net on the half-circuit sprint and had to ease off before hitting the timing boxes. Other than that, the session went pretty much without incident.

The second session was a full-on skating session, and it was another high-tempo set of repetitions with one group staring their repetition often before the last group had finished. The coaches are clearly pushing these guys through their drills to test their fitness as much as get the needed work on systems in. The other thing we noticed with the rapid deployment of drills and the quick time approach to performing them is that the players are forced to make decisions – within the construct of the drill – quickly. This was on display in what seemed like a simple enough drill in which the forwards would circle about in their zone, dropping, flipping and passing the puck to one another in close quarters. Caps fans who attend games and arrive early no doubt have seen something like this when Alexander Semin or Tomas Fleischmann or Nicklas Backstrom will skate with one another and circle lazily between the red line and blue line in the pre-game skate dropping passes to one another. Today’s drill was performed at a much higher tempo, and there were instances this morning in which players struggled a bit to find a rhythm or their teammates’ sticks. A lot of pucks went skittering off into the corner or to the boards.

Through two days, you would have to say that the attitude is “business-like.” There isn’t much by way of joshing around, and coaches are quick to take players aside and point out things that need work. Bruce Boudreau seemed especially displeased with one effort on the part of Josh Godfrey, who didn’t force action closely or quickly enough for Boudreau’s liking. His mantra was “move your feet.” That seemed to be something all of the players could mind.

Tomorrow is the rookie camp scrimmage, then the Caps/Flyers rookie game on Thursday. Time flies when you’re having camp.

2010-2011 Previews: Defensemen -- Tom Poti

Tom Poti

Theme: "The years teach much which the days never knew."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tom Poti will enter the 2010-2011 season with more than twice as many games of NHL regular season experience as that of any other Caps defenseman.  He and John Erskine are the only Caps defensemen who played in the NHL prior to the lockout.  When he took the ice for the first time for the Edmonton Oilers on October 10, 1998, John Carlson was eight years old. 

In a sense, he is the glue that holds the Caps defense together.  He led the group in shifts taken per game last season and was second (to Mike Green) in total ice time per game.  He led all Caps defensemen in penalty killing ice time per game and was the only Caps defenseman other than Mike Green (who played the entire season in Washington) who had more than one minute of power play ice time per game.  He was second in scoring among Caps defensemen, but he also was second in blocked shots and takeaways.

He had a quite productive road record for the Caps last season, going 2-11-13, plus-19 in 34 games away from Verizon Center.  And, he finished well.  After going 0-8-8, plus-4 in the first three months of the season, he was 4-12-16, plus-22 in 38 games in the 2010 portion of the 2009-2010 season.  And, in keeping with the “defense” notion of his position, he was tied for 21st among defensemen playing in at least 50 games in lowest goals scored against/on ice-per 60 minutes (from  Given that he was in the top 25 percent in terms of quality of competition faced, Poti would appear to have shed the reputation he once had of being unfamiliar with his own end of the ice.

Poti did, however, have a somewhat curious record against playoff teams last year.  In 23 games against the other seven teams in the East that would make the playoffs, he was 0-11-11, plus-2.  Not especially noteworthy statistics on their own.  But he was 0-7-7, minus-5 in 19 games against six of those teams.  The exception was his record against Boston: 0-4-4, plus-7 in four games.  Perhaps it was merely coincidental that Poti is also a native of Worcester, MA.

And that provides a segue into the playoffs. Poti had not been recognized as much of a playoff performer.  In his first six playoff seasons he compiled a 0-8-8, minus-9 record in 31 games, the last season of which found him sitting in the penalty box as the series clinching goal was scored by Philadelphia against the Caps in 2008 (Poti had been sent off for tripping R.J. Umberger).  But over the last two years, Poti has gone 2-9-11, plus-17 in 20 post season games.  He has been the best Caps defenseman in each of the last two post-seasons.

All that makes the injury he sustained in the last minute of Game 6 of last spring’s playoff series against Montreal that much more difficult to take.  His absence in Game 7 of that series should not have mattered as much as it did, but given the way the series unfolded, it was huge.

Fearless:  The Caps seem to have been as good for him as he has been good for the Caps.  He is plus-50 in his career, plus-38 in his three years with the Caps (not to mention plus-16 in three playoff seasons).  He is not the scorer he once was – Mike Green does the heavy lifting in that regard – but he is, for the moment, the best Caps two-way defenseman.

Cheerless:  OK, cuz, so Poti is the veteran leader on the defense, right?  Alright, how many playoff series have his teams won?  His teams’ record is 1-8 in playoff series.  Every other team leader in games for the top four on defense among the contenders in the East (Colin White for New Jersey, Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, and Brooks Orpik for Pittsburgh) have a Stanley Cup on their resumes.

In the end…

Poti suffered a gruesome injury in Game 6 of last spring’s first round playoff series against Montreal.  After suffering that injury, Coach Bruce Boudreau said of him, “Tom Poti has been great.  You lose one of your best, [most] experienced players. It's a tough thing…”   It was not idle praise.  Poti was on the ice for four of the 18 goals scored by Montreal in the first six games, but only one of those was at even strength and that one in the first minute of Game 2.  He was the Caps’ best defenseman in the series.

Now, the questions are two.  First, has Poti recovered completely from the eye injury he sustained last spring?  The answer to this question is important in two contexts.  It is important in terms of his role and responsibility on this team.  Poti is the best two-way defenseman on this team at the moment, with all apologies to Mike Green’s underrated defense and John Carlson’s lack of NHL experience.  If there are any lingering effects of his injury, it will have impacts at both ends of the ice.  And that gets to the other context – experience on the defense.  The Caps do not have the depth of experience to be able to fill in the blanks if Poti gets off to an unproductive start. 

The second question is a bit more long term as far as the season goes.  The true measure of Poti’s contribution is likely to be, as it will be for the rest of the Caps, in the post season.  Was last year’s impressive play against Montreal the product of talent and accumulated experience?  Or, was it a fluke?  Given how he has performed in the last two post-seasons, we are not inclined to think it a fluke, and that makes Poti a very important part of the Caps’ march to the post-season and beyond.


73 games, 4-18-22, plus-19

Capitals Rookie Camp 2010 -- Day 1

And so it begins.  The 2010-2011 hockey season got off to a spirited start today as the Capitals held their first on-ice day of rookie camp, and if there was a theme today it was “skate, skate, and skate some more.”  The first day of a Bruce Boudreau rookie camp seems like a test of sorts, evaluating just how in-shape the kids are and challenging the youngsters to push through what fatigue they have as they get their skating legs under them.

It wasn’t an especially noteworthy day in terms of any one player standing out (although the coaches, with their fine eye for technical detail, no doubt have their early opinions).  It wasn’t especially noteworthy in the stands, either, as the combination of a 10:00 Sunday start and it being Opening Day of the NFL season (sorry, we don’t count Thursday games) kept the crowd light.  There were a couple of on-ice surprises early, though.  Goaltender Braden Holtby was on hand for this session, despite his being a “veteran” in this setting.  He and the other three goalies on hand – the others being Philipp Grubauer, Jared DeMichiel, and Brandon Anderson – were on the ice before the skaters came on, taking shots from coaches Mark French and Troy Mann.  Personally, we just think Holtby wanted to show off his new mask…

The other surprise was Zach Miskovic taking the ice for a prolonged skating session.  Miskovic injured his knee in development camp in July and had been listed as “week-to-week.”  Even if he doesn’t take the ice for drills this week or next, it was good to see him out there testing his wheels.

What isn’t surprising is the roster.  You will find a relative few number of “first timers” at this camp, and in fact there is a substantial number of players here that have been through the drills in past years.  In addition to Kugryshev, players such as Trevor Bruess, Anton Gustafsson, Jake Hauswirth, Cody Eakin, Joe Finley, Josh Godfrey, and Braden Holtby are “veterans” of this phase of development.

Today’s session was broken into two parts, and there seemed to be a marked difference in energy level from the first to the second.  In the second, the high-tempo of the opening round seemed to be taking its toll on some players.  That was merely prelude to the entertainment portion of the day.  Call them “herbies,” bag skates,” “sprints into the maw of hell,” it is the annual rite of September that informs the rookies, “this is for real.”  We have our own soft spot for Dmitry Kugryshev, who in his last two experiences on opening day at Kettler found himself in a four point stance, his face buried in the ice (we’d last about six strides before collapsing in a viscous puddle of goo).  We wondered if he would go for the trifecta today.  But give the kid credit, he remained upright (sort of) throughout the drill, which is better than a few of this teammates.  More than a couple found themselves in the prone position, including young Mr. Grubauer, but one has to give him a break with his hauling that equipment around for a couple of hours – plus the pre-skate drills.

Two more days of practice, followed by a Wednesday scrimmage, before the Caps rookies take on the Flyers’ rookies on Thursday.  There is a lot of stuff to cover in a short few hours of hands-on on-ice time before the vets take over the rink next Saturday.  In the meantime...