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Norris Trophy grass is finally Green-er on other side

by Shawn P. Roarke
Are there chinks appearing in Nick Lidstrom's armor? Has his iron-fisted grasp on the Norris Trophy begun to slip?

The answers are yes, however slight, and yes.

Lidstrom has won the past three Norris trophies and six of the past seven, but his run will stop in 2009. Simply, Washington's Mike Green has had a better season; in fact, the best season among the 200-plus defensemen that have appeared in the League this season.

Does winning the Norris Trophy mean that Green is a better defenseman than Lidstrom? No. Rather, it simply means that Green was better than Lidstrom this year.

For Lidstrom, there is no shame in that as Green turned in a season for the ages, becoming the first defenseman in 16 years to reach the 30-goal mark. Lidstrom, meanwhile, was hampered by a season-long battle with a minor elbow injury that contributed to a slight dip in his usual yeomanly work load, a small dropoff more than ably picked up by Brian Rafalski.

Still, Lidstrom managed to top the 50-point plateau for the 14th time in his legendary career and he is hovering at a plus-30 rating, which is in the neighborhood of the plus-40 seasons he has turned in each of the past two campaigns.

His 2008-09 season -- a season most defensemen would kill for, but considered merely pedestrian for Lidstrom -- leaves him in the Norris Trophy conversation for sure. In fact, there is a good chance that Lidstrom will be one of Green's two runners-up when the voting is done at the end of the season by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

The other runner-up this season will likely be Boston's tower of power, Zdeno Chara, marking the third time that Chara has finished as the bridesmaid in the voting process. He was runner-up to Lidstrom last year and to Scott Niedermayer in 2004.

Only four defensemen in the League -- Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester -- average ice time than Chara's 26:02. None of those players, however, can come close to Chara's plus-24 ranking.

There is a reason that Chara sees so much ice time per game, including seven-plus minutes of specialty-teams' play per game. And, it is because Boston coach Claude Julien has come to realize that the 6-foot-9 Slovak has no weakness.

Like Lidstrom, Chara is comfortable at either end of the ice. He has the long stick, fearsome reputation and positioning skills to ably fill his appointed role of shutdown defenseman; but he also has a canon of a shot and uncanny ability to read the game to produce points at a pace few defenders can duplicate.

Yet, Lidstrom and Chara are screaming for the second seat at this table because Green has delivered the necessary knockout blow to unseat Lidstrom, the reigning Norris Trophy champion.

Not only did Green have an offensive season to remember, breaking an NHL record by becoming the first NHL defenseman to score in eight-straight games, eclipsing a 25-year-old record held by Mike O'Connell, and making his well-chronicled assault on the 30-goal plateau, but he also emerged as a much-improved defender in his own end.  

He plays almost five minutes more per game than any other Washington defenseman and is now regularly drawing duty against the top offensive players from opposing teams. Green boasts a plus-24 rating this season, the best of his career. There are some that will argue that plus/minus ratings are a waste of time when it comes to determining a player's defensive worth. Those critics suggest that gaudy pluses are the direct result of playing for a good, offensively capable club. But, plus/minus can not be dismissed that easily -- especially in Green's case.

His first full season, he was a minus-10 in a 70-game feeling-out process. Last season, he scored 56 points for a Capital team that was just as scary in the offensive zone as this year's edition, yet Green was merely a plus-6. This season, Green has just 14 more points, but is a attention-grabbing plus-24. Plus, Green has become a dependable penalty killer in Washington's shorthanded rotation.

As the season has progressed, Washington coach Bruce Bodreau has placed more and more responsibility on Green and the young defenseman has answered each challenge.

That progression allows precious little argument that Green has not progressed rapidly in his own end; progressed so rapidly that he must be considered "the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position."
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