The Case for Mike Green

By Scott Lowe

For those of us with the good fortune of watching Mike Green play defense for the Washington Capitals on a daily basis, it had started to become pretty easy to take him for granted. You could pencil him in for a point or two every night along with about 25 minutes of ice time – very active up and down ice time, no less. Oh, and if the game went into overtime you could be pretty sure that Green would either score the game-winner himself or play an important role in the deciding tally. Ho hum.

Perhaps Green has become a victim of his own consistency. Despite his high level of play, for most of the North American hockey media, there always seems to be questions about his overall game. He never can quite do enough for those who only see him play on occasion.

Certainly for a couple of years Green could have been considered one of those “high risk, high reward” types of players, but over the past two seasons – logging all the key ice time and a good chunk of the short-handed minutes for one of the NHL’s best teams – Green is a plus-59. Sounds more like low risk, high reward to me. That includes a plus-35 mark this season, which is second among the league’s defensemen, and a plus-33 rating outside of his division, the best out-of-division number for any NHL d-man.

On top of that he leads all blueliners in goals (19), assists (55), points (74), power-play goals (10), power-play points (35), home points (40), road points (34) and points outside his division (54). Phew!

Oh, there’s more. Green is the only defenseman averaging more than a point per game and his plus-minus rating is 59% better than the second-best player among the top 10 in defenseman scoring. Historically speaking he is only the third active defenseman (actually the second with Chelios getting shipped back to the AHL) to have recorded a 70-point season (Lidstom is the other), and Green is the seventh defenseman all-time with back-to-back 70-point seasons before turning 25. The other six are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Bruce Boudreau has contended for more than a year that Green is the best blueliner he has on both ends of the ice. Caps fans and media have witnessed his phenomenal talent on a nightly basis, and despite the criticisms of his defensive game, he still finished second in last year’s Norris Trophy voting. Although it’s way too early to seriously discuss this, Green is in the process of compiling a Hall of Fame resume.

We can sit at our keyboards and pound out endless complicated statistics and comparisons that show how much Green means to his team, but perhaps Boudreau’s simplistic approach is more effective and provides an even better argument. “He can’t do anything about what other people say,” says the defenseman’s most ardent supporter. “As a team we’ve played 80 games and gotten points in 65 of them. That’s pretty incredible, and if we are successful in these last two games we have a chance to be 40 games over .500. A week ago I finally heard the media touting him as Norris candidate, and now he sits out two games and they are doubting him again. I really don’t know why people doubt him when most of these awards are determined by statistics and he by far has the best statistics. He’s got the best statistics and is the best defenseman on the best regular-season team.”

Green established himself as a Norris frontrunner last season only to be edged in the voting by Zdeno Chara. You could make plenty of arguments for both players, and in the end it really could have gone either way. Chara was considered the better player in his own end an also an offensive weapon. Green had earned recognition as the top offensive blueliner, but his vocal defensive doubters probably made the difference.

The unfair part about the evolution of Green as a Norris candidate is what happened after last regular season. A worn down and beat up Green did not produce up to his usual high standards during the playoffs, and his reputation took a beating. Midway through the second-round seven-game loss to Pittsburgh commentators began to whisper that Green was falling out of favor with Steve Yzerman and the others who would be selecting the roster for the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team.

Instead of returning as a supremely confident defenseman who had solidified as one of the game’s best and would be representing his country in Vancouver, Green came to training camp feeling he had something to prove. He pressed a little bit early in the season and experienced some struggles in his own end. Still, his numbers were among the top d-men in the league. Then came the Canadian team announcement, and Green was left off of the roster in favor of players such as declining veteran Chris Pronger (yes, Canada won the gold medal, but Pronger over Green?) and up-and-comer Drew Doughty.
Perhaps motivated by not being selected or possibly relieved to be done with the situation altogether, Green has been lights out on both ends of the ice ever since.

If you really take a hard look at Green’s accomplishments and what he means to his team, no other blueliner really compares in terms of overall contribution. Is he the best defenseman in the league in his own end? No, but he is skilled and mobile enough to lead an offensive rush up the ice and recover in time to break up a counter-attack. He’s big and strong enough to provide a physical presence and help make his team the top 5-on-5 club in the league. He’s creative enough to thread breakout passes that create scoring chances for the league’s most talented group of forwards and to make smart decisions with the puck that thwart aggressive and trapping forechecks. He’s tough enough not to get pushed around, and disciplined enough to always be available when his team needs him the most. He would immediately make any team’s power play better and would see short-handed minutes for every other NHL club.

Certainly there are other great defensemen out there, but clearly there is no defenseman who has had the overall positive impact that Green has on his team. You can go deep into the statistical analysis to prove that point or save yourself a lot of aggravation and just give it the simple Boudreau eye test. While Doughty should give Green a run for his money during the foreseeable future, this is Mike Green’s year.

Green could have sat in the corner and sucked his thumb after being left off the Olympic team, but instead he reached down deep and became the best defenseman in the NHL. That alone deserves the respect of those who have doubted him in the past. And for those who say he doesn’t play well at both ends of the ice, they either don’t follow the sport closely enough or don’t understand it well enough to deserve a say in the matter, anyway.