In a way, it has come to Coach Adam Oates playing defense for Mike Green in recent weeks. Bring up the 28-year-old blueliner in any context, and the coach quickly emphasizes that he doesn’t judge Green based on his offensive output; smart decisions, assertive passes and on-ice poise are what the Capitals need most from the Calgary native.
The problem, though, is that the Capitals haven’t been getting the offense or the on-ice composure enough from Green throughout the first three months of the season.
“I was fighting it for a little while,” said Green, who has two goals and 18 points in 34 games. “But I think I’m coming into my own again. I think it’s just taken some time to get my feel in the game. Sometimes you go through those stretches. It’s definitely gone on a little longer than I’ve wanted, but I feel I’m improving.”
At his best, Green is a dynamic puck mover capable of breaking Washington out of its own zone with stunning efficiency, quarterbacking any shift in the offensive zone and reading situations to create chances for himself and his teammates.
This year there have been flashes of that brilliance. But for every clean first pass or play Green keeps alive at the point there seems to be just as many costly turnovers where he is forcing a play that simply isn’t there or missed an assignment in his own zone.
“It’s like a quarterback who starts throwing some interceptions and starts second guessing his decisions and it affects his throws,” Oates said. “That’s a coach’s job is to help him through it.”
Part of the problem Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson see is that Green, whose three-year, $18.25 million contract runs through the 2014-15 season, is still transitioning to a role where he’s not expected to score a goal every night. The Capitals aren’t looking for the end-to-end rushes that Green made frequently back in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons because they don’t want to give up the odd-man breaks the other way that come with those types of gambles. They want him to accept that playing a smart game will lead to offense, rather than making risky decisions to try and spark scoring.
Johansson, who holds Washington’s franchise record for points scored by a defenseman at 474, knows better than most the pressure that blueliners with strong offensive instincts place on themselves.
“He should have those [expectations] because he is good, but you also gotta channel that pressure the right way and be happy in some games if, ‘I played a great defensive game and it’s a 0-0 night. I have no points but I didn’t make any mistakes, really,’” Johansson said. “You’ve gotta be happy with that. I think once you are, the offense is a bonus and will come.”
Green recorded his first two goals of the season in December and four assists as well, but he was also on the ice for eight of 23 even-strength goals against in 10 games and went through a particularly rough stretch where every error cost the Capitals.
Against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10 Green was whistled for 18 penalty minutes in less than 12 minutes of game time. The Lightning scored a pair of power-play goals thanks to his infractions, which included two high-sticking penalties and a trip. In each of the next two games, against Florida and Philadelphia, Green would have the puck on his stick in the defensive zone, only to give it away to an opponent and then watch that forward immediately score a goal.
What frustrates Oates isn’t necessarily the turnovers or missed reads, like the one Monday night against Anaheim where Green drifted to the wrong side of the net when he stopped in front. Mistakes are bound to happen, Oates says. It’s the careless errors that he can’t accept.
“I keep telling him, ‘I don’t care about the points. I care about you tripping over the net, I care about the high sticks,’” Oates said. “’You know why I’m mad at the high sticks? Because you’re a magician with this thing. A magician doesn’t lose his wand. He doesn’t. That’s what I’m mad at. Not that you get beat, everybody gets beat. But how did you high stick a guy? You are too good at this to high stick a guy three times in one period.’ That’s what I get mad at.”
The Capitals need Green, who averages 23:25 per game, to find ways to limit those sloppy plays and clean up his decisions to prevent the frequent turnovers. To that end, the coaching staff is trying to work with him on making simple plays. That is easier said than done for skilled players like Green, who know they can pull off what other can’t.
Green admits that he’s been at odds with himself on the ice, sometimes trying to make a more complicated play when an easier one is available. But he’s trying to build his game back up.
“You obviously want to just keep the pedal on the gas and sometimes you just have to take a step back and reel things in,” Green said. “It’s not tough to make the [simple] pass, but it’s seeing the pass before it’s there and taking it. Sometimes you overthink too much, and then before you know it the pass is gone and you don’t have a play. You’ve just got to go back to basics and work your way up from there. It takes time.”