A distinct phase of Washington Capitals history ended this week. Was it a success? Absolutely. Was it disappointing? Yeah, it was that, too.
With Mike Green leaving Washington for a three-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings, the Young Guns Era now belongs to the newspaper (and blog) archives. Sure, their pinball style of play disappeared long ago, even before the departures of Bruce Boudreau and then Alex Semin. And yes, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom aren’t going anywhere.
But Green — maybe more than anyone besides Ovechkin — was the on-ice symbol of the smooth-faced, high-scoring, Rock the Red Caps who headlined Washington sports at a time when just about every other team was in shambles.
That group produced countless jolts of regular-season joy– with Green at the center of many of them — and forced their way into the area’s sports consciousness. They led news broadcasts and starred on magazine covers, and they were rock stars on social media. That’s the success. But that group never found the postseason glory that once felt inevitable, with Green often among the most devastated (and dissected) after playoff losses. He spent a decade in Washington, and never skated in a conference final. That’s the disappointment.
Green was the only native English speaker of the Young Guns, the tattooed, spiky-haired skateboard-loving icon who was pals with Ryan Zimmerman and Chris Cooley, and was mildly popular in certain teenage sets. His offensive peak was absurd: In Washington’s first three modern playoff seasons, he averaged an outrageous .91 points per game. And even if he became a seldom-mentioned third-pair defenseman at the end of his tenure, he remained synonymous with some of the most explosive teams Washington had ever seen.
“Incredibly exciting, and really a beautiful player to watch,” Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May said. “In my opinion, he’s the best offensive defenseman the Caps have ever had.”
The numbers certainly put Green in that conversation. He’ll leave tied for third in career regular-season goals among Caps defensemen. His 31-goal campaign in 2008-09 was second-best for a Caps blueliner (behind Kevin Hatcher’s 34, in a different era and with 15 more games). He had two of the three highest points-per-game seasons for a Caps defenseman. He became the first NHL defenseman to score in eight straight games, and the first to top 30 goals in 16 years.
“Every time he took his shift on the ice, I was on the edge of my seat,” wrote Melissa Allen, a 30-year old season-ticket holder who goes by “@Love4Greenie” on Twitter. “I loved watching him play. I loved the dynamic duo of him and Ovechkin, especially on the power play.”
There was plenty to love. The way he so smoothly quarterbacked the team’s lethal power play — especially in a town that hasn’t seen much in the way of smooth quarterbacking. The “Game Over Green” business, his penchant for game-winning goals (20 in his career) and walk-off strikes, including one in overtime of the 2013 playoffs. The way he translated the grace and speed of Boudreau hockey to the blue line — that some fans argued Green should have been a forward was both a slight and a compliment.
It was also the way he and Ovechkin seemed to grow up together. Born less than a month apart in 1985, they both rode their fame to, let’s say, a non-boring lifestyle, and then slowly changed with time. It’s hard to remember another pro team in Washington that felt as much like a gradually unspooling family documentary, with an unruly batch of siblings marching through life as a group.
“I think we’re just more serious,” Green told me a few years ago in a hotel lobby in Florida. “We’re very, I want to say, focused on one thing, and it has to do with hockey. It’s not about anything else any more. It used to be we were young, we were trying to enjoy ourselves, and we’re playing pro hockey. It’s a pretty good life. But now it’s more than that, you know? We’ve established ourselves, and we want to win.”
In the regular season, they won plenty. In the playoffs, not as much. And as the Caps wrenched their way through various post-Boudreau regimes, the swooping, flashy puck mover of 2008 and 2009 was sometimes shackled. He was never going to be a hulking, shut-down defender, and he became a dividing line for fans, like asking if they preferred Molson or Labatt.
“You don’t turn Wayne Gretzky into a shot-blocker. Mike Green, you’ve got to use him to the best of his abilities — that’s skating with the puck and being involved offensively,” May said. “I did not like watching when he wasn’t allowed to carry the puck. I wanted him to be out there on the power play, rushing the puck up the ice. I always thought the team struggled when he wasn’t the guy out there moving the puck up the ice, when they were trying to hold him back.”
The latter half of his Caps tenure was marked by health problems, constantly changing defensive partners, and plenty of trade suggestions and vitriol from fans. May, like others, was put off by the attacks on Green — “the worst thing I could ever say about him is he got hurt a few times, and you can’t hold that against anybody” he said — but in any case, those debates will soon end. The debate that remains: How will Green’s time in Washington be remembered?
“A dynamic player who brought talent, energy, and amazing hockey to the city,” argued Allen, who doesn’t plan to change her Twitter handle. “I’ll miss his fiery slapshots from the blue line, his power play connection with Ovechkin, and his awesome personality. He was an integral part of their success.”
Others will be less broken-up over his farewell. And anyone who felt the adrenaline rush of a vintage Green-to-Ovechkin power-play goal, of that bottle-rocket offense that produced some of the best years in Caps history, is entitled to feel that Green and his teammates never reached their postseason potential.
Still, when the Red Wings visit Washington in early December, there should be at least one more Verizon Center ovation reserved for a young gun who helped turn that arena red.