Washington Capitals' Mike Green may be in line for recognition as NHL's top defenseman

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; D03

COLUMBUS, OHIO -- Mike Green gloved down a clearing pass at the blue line in the first period Saturday night, glided in for a closer look, coolly picked his spot, then ripped a slap shot into the back of the Blue Jackets' net.

The power-play goal was Green's 74th point of the season, setting a new career high for the Washington Capitals' star defenseman. But it was Green's performance at the other end of the ice that was even more impressive to Coach Bruce Boudreau.

"Mike Green was fabulous," Boudreau said. "I just thought every time [he was] on [the ice] he was a force defensively. He's been like that for a while. He just doesn't get the recognition that he should defensively."

That recognition, however, could be forthcoming. One year after he was edged by Boston's Zdeno Chara for the Norris Trophy, Green is putting on a late-season push to earn the title of top defenseman in the NHL, a bid supported by growing maturity and sublime statistics.

Green leads all defensemen in points, goals (19), power-play goals (10) and assists (55). Meanwhile, his plus-35 rating is 11 better than last season and second only to partner Jeff Schultz's 38.

Green also averages the most ice time per game (25 minutes 26 seconds) on the NHL's best regular season team -- the Capitals clinched their first Presidents' Trophy late Sunday night when San Jose lost in Colorado -- and quarterbacks the league's top power play (the Capitals' 25.4 percent success rate is almost four percentage points better than Montreal's). He's also taking fewer penalties (27 minors in 73 games vs. 34 in 68 contests last season).

"I don't know what more you can ask," Boudreau said.

Green's all-around game has blossomed since the Olympic break, when he made up his mind to adopt a "defense-first" approach. That decision not-so-coincidentally was made around the same time Canada claimed the Olympic gold medal. Green was one of the last players cut from the roster because, according to General Manager Steve Yzerman, he wasn't "strong enough" in his own end.

"The light just went off in my head that I need to play this way," Green said. "Now, I think defense first."

The difference has been obvious. Green rarely gets caught deep in the offensive zone and he picks his spots better. A prime example came two weeks ago in Tampa, where he passed on the chance to turn a three-on-two odd-man break into a four-on-two in the final minutes of a tight game. Instead, Green stopped at the blue line -- just in case.

"When we're up 3-1 in the third period, he's not jumping up in the play," said assistant coach Bob Woods, who has worked closely with the 24-year-old, using video sessions to point out costly miscues and reinforce good habits. "He's finally recognizing those situations."

Taking fewer risks means getting fewer scoring chances, but Green has managed to keep his point total up by setting up his teammates more often. His 55 assists are 13 more than he had in 2008-09.

"It's actually a lot easier to play this way than the way I was playing before," he said with a chuckle. "I like blocking shots and being strong in the corners. It's a good feeling. You feel like you're accomplishing a lot more."

Green's competition for the Norris figures to be Chicago's Duncan Keith, 20-year-old Los Angeles phenom Drew Doughty and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. Green has better statistical credentials than all of them, but there are a couple of factors that could hurt his chances to bring home Washington's first Norris Trophy since Rod Langway won it in 1982-83 and 1983-84: He was left off of Team Canada while Keith and Doughty made it, and the fact that labels are tough to shed.

"The biggest problem with Mike is people who don't see him every night are still living on the reputation that he's all offense," Boudreau said. "He's a more complete player this year. And we are, at this stage of the season, the best team statistically, and he's the best defenseman we have."

After a pause, Boudreau added, "I'm his coach, but I might be his biggest fan, too."

The Norris Trophy is awarded by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, which will cast their votes prior to the start of the playoffs next week. The winner will be revealed in Las Vegas in mid-June, a few weeks after the Stanley Cup is hoisted.

"It would mean the world to me," Green said. "I would be very humbled to hopefully accept that award some day."

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