Over the last quarter of a century, Washington has been home to several of hockey’s most gifted offensive defensemen.
Hockey Hall of Famers Larry Murphy and Scott Stevens both patrolled the blueline and roamed freely over ice sheets here during the 1980s.
Kevin Hatcher twice broke the 20-goal barrier and set the single season club mark for defensemen when he turned on the red light 34 times in 1992-93. Al Iafrate’s triple-digit MPH slapshots were launched from the point in the District for a few seasons in the early 1990s. Hatcher, Iafrate and Sylvain Cote all eclipsed the 20-goal mark in ’92-93, and the Caps remain the only team in NHL history to have had three blueliners score 20 or more goals in the same season.
Phil Housley’s significant offensive gifts were fading by the time he arrived in Washington just over a decade ago, but he called Washington home for two seasons in the middle of the last decade.
Sergei Gonchar, one the league’s top backline producers, was drafted and developed here in the District. He played in three all-star games as a Capital, had four consecutive 50-point seasons and was a point shy of a fifth when he was shipped to the Boston Bruins in a Mar. 3, 2004 deal. Since Gonchar’s departure, the Caps have lacked a consistent and productive defenseman who can put up points on the power play and rush the puck up the ice at even strength.
No Caps defenseman has managed as many as 30 points since Gonchar left town. Jamie Heward led Caps blueliners with 28 points in 2005-06, a point total matched by Brian Pothier last season.
When was the last time Washington went two straight seasons without getting as many as 30 points from any of its defensemen?
More than 30 years ago; the first two seasons of the club’s existence, to be exact.
Yvon Labre paced the inaugural 1974-75 Caps with 27 points as a rearguard and Greg Joly put up 25 points in the franchise’s sophomore season of 1975-76. Until Heward fell just shy of 30 points two seasons ago, at least one Caps defenseman had put up 30 or more points in every season since. Frequently, there was more than one Caps blueliner who surpassed that modest mark. And frequently, that mark was doubled.
In 22-year-old Mike Green
, the Caps believe they may have landed the next blueliner in a long line of point-piling defensemen. With five goals in the team’s first 27 games this season, Green has already recorded more than any Washington blueliner managed in the entire 2006-07 season. If Green can manage five more, he will become the first Caps defenseman to reach double-digit goal totals since Gonchar totaled 18 in 2002-03. Washington has never gone more than three seasons without one of its defensemen achieving a double-digit goal campaign.
Green got off to a strong start this season, but he seems to have a bit more jump in his step over the last six games, since Bruce Boudreau – his coach at Hershey the last two seasons – was named as Washington’s interim head coach.
“I think that’s exactly it,” says Green of the coaching change. “As a young guy coming into the league you kind of have to earn your way up there. Bruce has seen me play. I’ve been coached by him for a year and a half and won a championship. He knows me and I know what’s expected out of him.”
Green has logged more than 20 minutes of ice time in each of the last four games, the first time he has done so in the NHL.
“I don’t think I’ve played that many minutes consistently at this level,” he says. “Throughout junior and in the AHL I have, so it’s not like I’m not used to it. I’ve been fortunate to play some minutes up here and contribute offensively in the offensive zone. It’s been going well and I’m happy.”
In the last four NHL Entry Drafts, the Caps have chosen a total of 10 defensemen in the first three rounds. Green, chosen in the first round (29th overall) of the 2004 draft, has played the most games for Washington at the NHL level and is likely the furthest along development-wise. Green made his NHL debut on his 20th birthday, Oct. 12, 2005. Now in his third season as a pro, he is making steps toward being a reliable two-way defender who is capable of logging a heavy ice time load.
As a 20-year-old first-year pro in 2005-06, Green got into 22 NHL games. He also played a lot of minutes in Hershey, where he was frequently paired with veteran pros Mark Wotton or Lawrence Nycholat.
“I think Lawrence Nycholat did an unbelievable job with [Jeff] Schultz and Green in bringing them along and he deserves as much credit as anyone for making them NHL-ready defensemen,” says Boudreau. “[Hershey defenseman] Dean Arsene is the same type. He is so vocal that wherever you are, he is going to put you in the right position. Communication is such a key and hockey players don’t talk enough on the ice, unless it is to curse at somebody.”
Besides Wotton and Nycholat, Boudreau and Green both credit Bears assistant coach Bob Woods with accelerating the development of both Green and Schultz.
“Woody is more of a listener and a mentor rather than a dictator,” says Boudreau. “When they make mistakes, he brings them in and talks to them and not make them [afraid] to touch the puck. He would say, ‘Okay, you made a mistake. That’s what we’re here for. Let’s try that again and maybe you won’t make the same mistake.’
“If he is a puck carrier, and he’s carrying the puck and he gets checked at the red line, it might not have been the right time to do it, but don’t not
do it. That’s what your job is. And that’s what the American League’s job is. Don’t just get the puck and throw it off the glass and get it out and play safe. Some guys do that until they get comfortable, but some guys have got to learn where their limits are. I think Bob was great with Greener and Schultzie in [helping them to] realize what their limits were and helping them with that.”
“He really worked with me when I was down there and gave me some free range to go out and use the offensive skills,” says Green of Woods, who is now the interim head coach in Hershey. “He taught me a lot of things that he did as a player that helped me out a lot. He is a great guy and a good defensive coach, too.”
Green totaled nine goals and 43 points in 56 regular season games with the Bears that first season, giving a hint of the kind of player he could become. Despite missing 24 of Hershey’s games while he was in Washington, Green finished 11th among all AHL blueliners in scoring. Each of the 10 defensemen ahead of him on the league's scoring list played in at least eight more games than he did.
When the playoffs rolled around, Green brought his play up to a whole new level. Routinely skating close to 30 minutes a night, Green totaled three goals and 18 points in 21 playoff games, finishing second among all AHL defensemen in playoff scoring as the Bears captured the Calder Cup. Most figured he’d never see Hershey again.
Green spent most of last season with the Caps, but did put in a short late-season stint with the Bears. He wasn’t the same player during his time in Washington the past two seasons. Green seemed more timid, more cautious and less willing to lead the rush or to go off on one of his patented one-man, dump and chase missions.
“In Hershey, he could make mistakes and he had the speed to recover,” says Boudreau. “So I gave him more latitude. Sometimes when you make a mistake up here, the transition goes from defense to offense in a [hurry]. I think he was tentative because he didn’t feel as confident as he was down there. He knew he could make mistakes in Hershey and he’d still play 25 minutes a game. But that’s why it’s called a development league and that’s why you let them play and play through their mistakes. It’s for all the money up here. It’s big potatoes.”
Green returned to Hershey for the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs, and this time he led all AHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 19 games.
Coming off a modest two-goal, 12-point performance in the NHL last season, Green showed up for training camp this fall determined to make a difference and to establish himself as a bona fide NHL blueliner. So far, so good. A brilliant skater, the 22-year-old Calgary native is playing with a lot of confidence and making good things happen on the ice. With Boudreau behind the bench, Green has that old feeling again, knowing he’ll get his 20-plus minutes even if he makes the odd mistake.
“That’s a big thing that I know [Boudreau] believes in,” says Green. “Mistakes happen. As long as you’re not making the same mistakes over and over again, you’ll be all right. And the thing is, not worrying about mistakes eliminates a lot of mistakes. I think that’s been a big help for myself. A big part of my game is just going out and playing. I’m an offensive guy and [mistakes] might happen more often than with a defensive guy. I have all the confidence now that if something like that is going to happen, it’s going to happen. It’s a game.”
Heading into this season, Green had yet to score a power play goal in the NHL. He now has three. With nine points in 27 games, Green is only three points shy of matching last season’s total of 12 points, achieved in 70 games.
“I know that there is a comfort-ability with me and Mike,” says Boudreau, “not that that has anything to do with it. I think he feels comfortable that good things are going to happen, but this is his breakout year. This is his year. It’s his third year, and he knows he is an NHL player and he is playing with a lot of confidence. He is so talented, and he has such a drive.”
Green’s main assets are his speed, his skating ability and his poise. He frequently takes off on dashes out of his own end that result in him carrying the puck all the way down to the opposing goal line. Green sometimes seems on the edge of control and on the precipice of danger when he is on the ice, but it’s often illusory.
“He scares the hell out of you and then he dekes the guy,” observes Boudreau. “You’re going, ‘How’s he going to get around this guy?’ and the next thing you know, he’s around him. He has a pretty nice toe drag. And he does it too, going behind the net. He just grabs the puck, his body is going the other way and you keep thinking he is going to overskate the puck. But it comes right along with him. It’s pretty cool.
“I call him ‘The Hulk,’ and not because he is big. If you ever used to watch the [Incredible Hulk television] show, the madder he gets, the stronger he gets and the longer he can go. The more [Green] plays he’s faster. If he’s playing 27 minutes, he’s faster and hitting harder at the end of the game than he was at the beginning of the game. Every time I see him he reminds me of The Hulk. And it’s not his body.”
Green’s career arc is still a work in progress. The very nature of a defenseman’s job means he is going to have his peaks and valleys. Green is determined to minimize those valleys.
“I am trying to find a balance where I can be consistent every night,” he declares. “And I play the best when I keep it simple. I just have to make smart plays. It’s an easier game that way.”
And while he may be on his way to becoming the next in a long line of excellent offensive defensemen to grace the frozen sheet here in Washington, Green also wants to be effective in his own end.
“I don’t want to be put into that category,” he bristles, when asked about being an offensive defenseman. “I think over the years in junior I’ve kind of developed myself into that. I want to be a really strong defenseman, first off. Like Bruce says, strong defense makes good offense. If I can be consistent with my defense, the offense will come naturally.”