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 behindthenet.ca), 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 (behindthenet.ca) 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