In each of the past seven seasons, the Washington Capitals have built their defense around Mike Green.
Regardless of the injuries that befell him, the emergence of other young blue-liners and a rotating cast on the depth chart, Green remained a fixture in Washington’s top two pairings and for the past six years its highest-paid defenseman.
But as the Capitals consider numerous organizational changes after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, Green is coming off another season with mixed results. If a significant roster shake-up does occur, parting ways with Green could be where Washington starts.
Green, 28, led the Capitals’ defensemen in points this season (38), recording nine goals and 29 assists over 70 games. He also was the best at driving possession among all players, with a Corsi-for of 51.7 percent. As encouraging as the underlying numbers may be, though, the veteran was guilty of glaring miscues each night that often led to a goal against.
“It was frustrating at times throughout the season,” said Green, who has one year with a salary cap hit of $6,083,333 remaining on his three-year contract. “But as a professional you’ve got to stay strong and get through it. I wouldn’t say I was completely comfortable at times; it definitely took some time for me to get there.”
In the four years since he ruled the NHL as an aggressive, dynamic offensive threat and two-time Norris Trophy finalist, Green has been sidelined by multiple concussions, a groin problem that led to sports hernia surgery, an ankle injury and — to close out this season — fractured ribs. Even when considering the time required to regain his footing after returning to the lineup, Green continues to float without a defined identity as a player.
He shows flashes of the smooth skating and confident passing that makes him a one-man breakout at times, but that’s often overshadowed by tentative play and frequent turnovers. This season, John Carlson took over the role Green previously held as the team’s ice-time leader and quarterback on the point of the top power-play unit.
Coach Adam Oates has repeatedly acknowledged that while he doesn’t evaluate Green on offensive production, that message doesn’t always get through to the defenseman.
“He’s an enigma,” Oates said. “I felt that in the course of the season people want that [offensive production] every night from him, and I’m trying to fight him back. ‘No, we just need you to be a solid player. The league is too good. You’re not going to score a goal every single night.’ It doesn’t work like that. I need him to be a consistent hockey player. The more we can get him to understand that will be good for us.”
Even though he missed time with a concussion and fractured ribs, Green has been comparatively healthy this season as he played 70 games for just the fourth time in his career and the first since 2009-10. While he was a regular part of the lineup this season, those around him constantly shuffled.
Green skated alongside Karl Alzner, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov as the Capitals experimented with numerous combinations to try to maximize the organization’s lack of NHL-ready depth. The Calgary native acknowledged the turnover was tough for him to get used to.
“We had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup,” Green said. “The most partners I've ever had in a season, and it was tough to sort of catch our ground and run with it.”
But at this stage of Green’s career, having played nine NHL seasons, Oates said the Capitals needed him to help guide the defense through this rocky year.
“He’s had a lot of partners, but he’s also supposed to be the guiding light,” Oates said. “He’s the veteran. He’s the guy we count on. He’s supposed to take care of them, not the other way around.”
Capitals notes: Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera will play for Canada in the IIHF World Championships May 9-25 in Minsk, Belarus. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Orlov are all expected to suit up for Russia; Mikhail Grabovski will play for host Belarus; Nicklas Backstrom said Monday he hadn’t been officially asked to represent Sweden but anticipated playing as well.