Mike Green had no desire to discuss the future, because the future might take him away from here. He did not want to consider life beyond this season — whenever the Washington Capitals’ playoff run ends, the defenseman’s contract expires and he enters unrestricted free agency. Sitting at his locker stall in a private moment Monday, inside the practice facility that became his office a decade ago, he tapped his foot and fiddled with his stick. He would not allow himself to think about leaving behind this city, these friends, this home.
“Excuse my language,” he said. “It scares the [heck] out of me.”
The fear is kept at bay, Green explained, by what’s happening all around him. The Capitals have moved within two wins of advancing into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in his career. They are using a new system under Coach Barry Trotz that liberates Green inside the offensive zone and allows the skilled puck-mover to pick his spots. The summer signings of defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have lessened the burden on Green, allowing him to finish second among NHL blue-liners in points per 60 minutes, despite averaging his lowest ice time since 2006-07.
Green has never been this happy with the Capitals, he said. Not when he first broke into the NHL, drafted 29th overall by Washington in 2004, 28 selections after the team tabbed Alex Ovechkin as the cornerstone of their future. Not when he blossomed into a two-time Norris Trophy finalist, a two-time 70-point scorer and the eighth defenseman ever with 30 goals in a single season.
Now, he wears bigger shoulder pads to dish out harder hits and he tucks in the tongues of his skates to block more shots. He has accepted a reduced role and seen a sports psychologist to hone his mental strength. He has settled down after marrying a woman he met in the District, flying under the radar with the only NHL team he ever knew, the third-pair, right-handed defenseman on a roster he felt had never been tighter.
“You don’t always get that every year because of different circumstances, the emotional roller coaster that you’re on during certain years, things don’t go as well,” Green said. “But we’ve done it together. It wasn’t just . . . we go through the motions, we’re a talented team, we’ll get by. We worked hard together. That’s kind of cool.”
So no, Green does not want to address the future, when heart and business will clash, when other teams will offer lucrative deals, perhaps more than the Capitals can afford, and the 29-year-old will need to make a choice. That conversation would be for another day.
He would, however, like to talk about art.
In the basement of Green’s McLean home is a darkroom, which his wife, Courtney, uses for her work as a photographer. With time he grew interested in the process of shooting pictures and developing film. It was, he later realized, not unlike hockey.
“First you have to find your subject, whether it’s a person or landscape,” Green said, launching into the steps he learned from watching Courtney work and listening to her talk. Adjust the lighting. Set up your camera and tweak the settings. Next comes taking the picture, then finally hours spent in the darkroom.
“It’s not really instant gratification,” Green said. “It’s over time that you get it, you know? You might take a thousand pictures, and a thousand and one is the one that you like. You had to go through that process to get there. That’s what it’s about. The mastery of it. Trying to master the craft. It’s about the pursuit and the dream of getting there that’s interesting and intriguing.”
He has thought more about this lately, the pursuit of perfection, the mastery of craft. Few defensemen had ever excelled in the offensive zone like Green during the late 2000s. In three straight seasons starting in 2007-08, he averaged more than 25 minutes per game and totaled 205 points, all before his 25th birthday.
Then Green ran into injury trouble, battling concussions, an ankle issue and a groin strain that required sports-hernia surgery. His production plummeted, but his confidence, at least publicly, never wavered. When he signed a three-year extension in July 2012, the one that will expire this summer, Green felt he would become a 70-point scorer again, “100 percent.”
When Trotz arrived, he asked Green to block more shots, become more physical and focus on the positioning of his stick. He asked him to accept the third-pair role, which would give him fewer minutes but easier assignments. But he also let Green — “ghost-like,” in Trotz’s words — do what he had always done best.
“In the past it was all offense or just all defense,” Green said. “There was no balance. There’s definitely a balance here now. There’s a reason for when you do jump up [into the offensive zone]. It’s not just because.”
This season has not reset his game, Green insisted, but rather offered a reminder of what he could still become, maybe in Washington, maybe somewhere else. Clinching the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division, beating the New York Islanders in the first round and taking a 2-1 series lead on the New York Rangers gave him a new sense of accomplishment, reaching new heights while still surrounded by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and the same old friends. Seeing a sports psychologist helped his focus. He blocked 93 shots, not quite a career high but enough to impress Trotz.
“It’s come miles from where he was,” Trotz said. “Greenie’s very receptive to getting better. Because of that, he’s really probably had quietly one of his better years overall.”
Roughly six years ago, Green filmed an episode for “MTV Cribs,” a show that takes viewers through the homes of celebrities. He showed off his expensive cars, wine room, art collection and hot tub, which had been lifted onto his balcony by a crane. Green never saw the footage the camera crew collected, but before the episode ever aired, he had a change of heart. Through a friend, he contacted MTV and asked them to pull the plug.
“When I was younger, I was out there, and that wasn’t me,” Green said. “That wasn’t what I wanted, I guess, once I really thought about it. It’s not like I hide. I just go about my business and don’t make an effort to be in the public’s eye all the time.”
He consciously withdrew even further from the spotlight this season, gladly overshadowed by Trotz’s arrival, Ovechkin’s MVP-caliber season and the team’s overall resurgence. Media mostly focused on his adaptation to the new system, or his reduction in ice time, or the swirling trade rumors that shadowed him up until the March 1 deadline passed. Green always replied with concise, soft-toned answers. His heart was in Washington, he insisted. He was happy with his role. He felt free in this system. He was content, as he said in late October, “hanging out in the weeds.”
“I don’t think being a superstar’s on his mind ever,” forward Jay Beagle said. “It’s just a matter of loving to play the game. I think he’s a superstar, but if you asked him, he would never label himself as that. And that’s a pretty cool thing.”
When asked to reflect on his regular season, Green expressed pride in the points-per-60-minutes statistic; it offered a baseline for the future, Green said, and proved to him that he could continue producing at a high level. But he also admitted the chicken-or-egg conundrum. What if he signed elsewhere this summer, on a team asking him to log top-pair minutes and defend opposing top lines? What if his accomplishments under Trotz came from the freshness of playing less?
“My mind is in the right place, and now it’s ready to begin to evolve,” Green said. “Really try to become an elite player.”
There was no fear, no concern about what would come next. His hands stopped fiddling, his feet stopped tapping. He was a husband, wed to Courtney last summer back home in Alberta, now thinking about fatherhood. He was one vital piece on an Eastern Conference semifinalist, the “X-factor,” as Trotz called him in December. He was an artist chasing mastery, unconcerned about whether he’d ever grab it, instead engulfed in the search.
“I ask myself, ‘What do you want?’ ” Green said. “Well, if you really think about it, then you can do whatever you want. I’m happy. Why change everything about it? Why not just build it up and continue to pursue that happiness?
“It’s about creating your own environment. It’s about what works best for you. My approach to the game, this is the right recipe.”