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Green is blossoming into another star for Capitals

by Karl Samuelson /

Mike Green is tied for the lead among goals scored by defensemen this year.
The 2004 NHL Entry Draft afforded the Washington Capitals an opportunity to land a franchise cornerstone in the form of heralded marksman Alex Ovechkin. The charismatic Russian is fulfilling his advanced billing and stands today as one of hockey's most exciting superstars. But the Capitals' good fortunes at the 2004 draft table didn't end with the first overall pick.

The club understands that successful teams require a dominant player on the blue line, and in the modern game, that means someone capable of acting as a quarterback on the power play and being a constant threat in even-strength situations. They hit pay dirt a second time by choosing defenseman Mike Green 29 th overall in the same draft.

This season, Green is creating offense from the blue line, the likes of which haven't been seen in Washington since the early 1990s, when the club boasted the formidable trio of Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher and Sylvain Cote.

"Green is an offensive guy that certainly likes to jump up into the rush," said Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza, whose team lost all three games against the Capitals this season. "Green shoots the puck well and does a good job on their first power-play unit and he can move in the back door. Washington has a dangerous power play with the five guys they have on the ice and we always have to pay close attention to Green."

Green is a quick learner. Most defensemen do not master the rigors of being a professional rearguard until they have at least four or five seasons under their belts. Not only does a young defenseman have to learn the League and its players, he also has to understand the off-ice commitment to nutrition, conditioning, and the importance of being an ambassador for the game. The 22-year-old Calgary native is developing ahead of schedule due to his unwavering focus on improvement and the firm foundation established during his formative years in the Western Hockey League and the American Hockey League.

Green played four years of junior hockey with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades and served a memorable apprenticeship with the AHL Hershey Bears.

"Those were some of the greatest years of my life," says Green. "It was great growing up and playing junior hockey since you were 15, going to school and being a big part of that town. It was hard to leave. We went to the playoffs in Saskatoon, but we never made it past the first round. I didn't really know what to expect in my first year of pro. The AHL is a great league and I had to step up, but I can tell you that first year in Hershey (2005-06) was the most fun I've ever had playing hockey. When you win a Cup (the Bears won the Calder Cup), you share experiences with not only the guys in your dressing room but with your whole family. It was very special. Those memories will never leave. It was quite the journey."

Green played 70 games in his first full season in Washington (2006-07) and was the lone rookie defenseman chosen to compete for the Eastern Conference in the YoungStars Game. He rejoined the Bears at the end of last season just in time to lead all AHL defensemen with 16 points in 19 playoff games. Some observers thought that he was upset about being assigned to Hershey in his second season of professional hockey, but such was not the case.

"Anyone who understands Mike knows that he wanted to play," said Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau, who complied a 51-17-6-6 record last season as the Bears' bench boss. "Mike came in the last week of the season after he played 70 games in the NHL, so he only played 12 games with us in Hershey last year. He came back down and led the league in playoff scoring among defensemen. His drive to succeed was tremendous. I never saw him without a smile, so if he was unhappy to come to Hershey, I didn't see it. Please kill that myth."

The best person to debunk the myth is Green himself.

"When I was asked if I wanted to go I was all for it," says Green. "I had no problem going back to Hershey and trying to win the AHL championship again because of what happened the first year and the relationships that I had developed in Hershey. It was by no means a negative experience going down there. I went down for all the right reasons and it helped me. I got to play quality minutes that I wasn't used to playing up here so it definitely helped me prepare for this season. We went to the finals again and it was another great experience. Obviously we didn't win (the Calder Cup) again, but I think the experience of going far in the playoffs can really help you individually."

"It certainly helped me," Green added. "The AHL is a developmental league and it provided a great learning experience. When you're up here (in the NHL) there's no time for development because you really have to step up and play. If you're not ready it's going to be very hard on yourself and on your team. It really helps your confidence and helps prepare you for the NHL when you go down and play a lot of minutes in those tight games. When you go there and win, it helps your confidence big time. Now you know what it takes mentally and physically to perform during a long season. It builds character."

Green understands that talent might get you to the NHL, but it takes character and perseverance to stay in the show.

"The NHL is not like other leagues where you can get away with not being mentally prepared for every game and sneak through the odd time," Green said. "You'll get exposed up here. If you're not focused, ready and in great shape to play the game, you'll be in trouble. You've got to make sure that you take care of yourself off the ice, too. I think that has been the biggest challenge for me – adjusting to the pro lifestyle, the travel, eating properly, getting into a routine where you can be your best every night. It's the pro life. This League is the best league in the world and you have to take care of yourself and make sure that you're being the best you can be on the ice."

Green has 12 goals scored this seaon putting him in second place amongst the Capitals.

If Green sounds serious, trust your instinct. The sophomore is absolutely serious about meeting the challenge of being a go-to guy on a team hungry for points, and he has the skill to back up his ambition. Green is an exceptional skater with good hockey sense in all three zones. He has great poise in pressure situations and has enough confidence to routinely lead a rush, join an attack or come in late for an unexpected shot on net. The 6-foot-2, 201-pounder has emerged as one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the NHL, but he aspires to being just as efficient on the defensive side of the puck.

"Offense comes a lot more naturally than the defensive game for me," Green said. "When there is offense to be created as the fourth guy jumping up into the play, that's what I want to do, and continue working the power play. It has taken some time for me to come into my own and I finally feel ready to fill that role. But I really try to work on my defensive game. I don't want to be known as just an offensive guy, though I think over the course of my junior career and AHL experience I have developed that (reputation), but I want to be a guy that can play solid minutes and play against top lines."

Other defensemen originally earned accolades because of their skill on the offensive side of the puck, including veterans Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings. But with time and commitment each developed into stellar defensive performers. Green admits that he studies the veteran defensemen at every opportunity.

"Absolutely," said Green, "and as I get older I watch those guys even more. When they were younger they went through what I'm going through right now. I really tune in to what they're doing and try to learn how they developed into players. Lidstrom is one of the best defensemen in the NHL and is smart with the puck, yet he plays a very simple game in his own end. So I try to follow the tendencies of those older guys. They're very wise. Every day is a learning experience, but the faster you can figure it out the better you will be."

Green is figuring it out quickly.

"Mike has really helped himself over the last year," said Washington assistant coach Jay Leach. "We had him up earlier in his career and he found out just how difficult it is to play in this League. But this kid dedicated himself to getting stronger, getting faster and being able to make his turns a lot more quickly. The bottom line is he can play some solid defense. A lot of people think that he is just an offensive defenseman, but he can play some solid defense."

Nobody can dispute that Green is handling the pressure of helping lead the Capitals to a playoff spot while putting up big numbers, and on many nights leading all Caps in ice time. He is performing just as well as Niedermayer and Lidstrom did at the same age.

"He is just like those guys," said Leach. "I'm not going to put a tag on him and say that he is as good as Niedermayer or Lidstrom, but he is similar in that he has the puck a lot and he is very good at it. He is learning the defensive end of the game and he's been pretty darn good. He's out there against the top players in the league and he holds his own. Other guys on our team may be better defensively, but they may not have the skill that he has to compete against the top guys in the league. His ability to skate and his stick skills make him an asset in defensive situations."

Like Niedermayer and Lidstrom, his offensive acumen will bring him notice, but his defensive maturity will make him a star.

"Mike very well could be a star, but we just say that it's a step at a time," said Leach. "We tell him to concentrate on every game and try to play error-free. It's never going to happen, but that's what you try to concentrate on and he has really developed. He was good in the minors and even coming up as a 19-year-old defenseman he was very good. But now his NHL game is taking off."

"Mike is getting better defensively every day," added Boudreau. "He sometimes jumps into the play when he shouldn't jump, but it's a learning process of understanding when you should and when you shouldn't. Mike plays every night against the other team's top three forwards, so he has to be good defensively. He is playing 24-27 minutes a game and the full power play."

Washington fans are brimming with pride about their emerging blueliner and it only gets better. Imagine how good Green will be when he approaches his prime at age 27 or 28.

"The sky is the limit," concluded Boudreau. "I don't know how good he can get but he is going to improve, get more experience, and get even better. You don't want to put pressure on Mike, but remember that Scott Niedermayer was relatively unknown until they started winning the Stanley Cup in New Jersey. I don't want to put Mike in that category yet, but he's got the same qualities. He is fast, not overly big, can stickhandle in a phone booth, and has the heart of a lion. That's Mike Green."


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