Capitals defenseman Mike Green last missed the Stanley Cup playoffs when he was a second-year pro who had just competed his first full NHL season in 2007.
He had not yet scored 31 goals. He was not yet Game Over Green. He was simply a promising young defenseman on a team still struggling to establish itself during a painful rebuilding process.
Washington eventually did that, but simply qualifying for the NHL playoffs long ago stopped being an acceptable end point. Green knows if the organization decides to head in a different direction – the status of general manager George McPhee and the coaching staff remains uncertain – then he could be headed out of town, too.
"We're not where we want to be right now," Green said at Monday's breakdown day at Kettler Iceplex. "This is the [second] time in my career here that we haven't made the playoffs, and it's definitely an odd feeling, for sure. We all play for one reason, and that's to give ourselves a chance to win a Stanley Cup, and we fell short."
Green is entering the final season of a three-year contract he signed in 2012. He will make $6.25 million in 2014-15 and his salary cap hit is $6.083 million. After being relegated to the second power-play unit and playing slightly fewer minutes per game at right defense than teammate John Carlson, it is fair to wonder if that price is too steep. That's tied for 12th among NHL defensemen in cap hit.
But that isn't a pressing matter right now. Washington enters the summer with plenty of cap space and the ceiling is expected to rise from $64.3 million to around $71 million. Unless owner Ted Leonsis suddenly puts his team on a budget, Green's contract doesn't need to be moved to create financial flexibility.
The Caps used 14 defensemen this year, four of whom had never played in the NHL. Only four appeared in even half the club's games - Green (70), Carlson (82), Karl Alzner (82) and Dmitry Orlov (54). No surprise that such instability contributed to a team ranked 21st in goals allowed per game (2.79).
Does subtracting a player from that group who skated the most even-strength minutes per game (19:28) and contributed nine goals and 29 assists, make it better in the short term?
Green also led Washington in Corsi-for (51.7 percent) and Fenwick-for (51 percent) percentages. Basically, the Caps outshot the opposition when Green was on the ice at even strength, which means they had the puck more. That's a good thing for a team with few players who could say that after the season. The only caveat? Alzner and Carlson routinely faced stiffer competition.
Green will always be shadowed by his early offensive success. Only 17 times in league history has a defenseman scored 30 goals or more in a season. Green's 31 goals in 2008-09 came in an incredible 68 games. That's the 10th-best goals-per-game year ever for a defenseman. But if that's the bar Green has set – or even his 18- and 19-goal seasons sandwiching that magical year – it's too much for him now.
"He's an enigma," Caps coach Adam Oates said. "Greenie's that guy that down the stretch last year had that month that was fantastic. I felt that in the course of [this] season people want that 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."
After returning from a groin injury late last season, Green scored 10 goals and had nine assists in Washington's final 18 games. Oates insisted that he doesn't want Green to return to that 31-goal form because if he does it means he'd be "cheating" to get there. Better, consistent play from night to night is the message.
Green admits that within the structure implemented by Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson, that wasn't always a smooth process.
"You get to a point where you just go back to the basics of what you think you do well and try to utilize that within the system," Green said. "I think that's where I got to. It was frustrating at times, and throughout the season, but professionally, I'll stay strong and get through it. I wouldn't say I was completely comfortable at times. It definitely took me a while to get there."
Finding a reliable partner for him proved difficult. Green played 70 percent of his even-strength minutes with Orlov, rookie Nate Schmidt or Hillen on his left side. The majority of that (41 percent) was with Orlov, who showed flashes of his potential, but at age 22 is still capable of spectacular miscues and bad decisions. Assuming Green returns, finding a left-side defenseman who complements his game is critical for whomever is in charge of personnel.
Injuries are always an issue, too. Green's 70 games played are a victory after concussions ruined his 2010-11 season, a groin injury limited him to 32 games in 2011-12 and he missed 13 more with a recurrence of groin pain during the lockout-shortened 48-game campaign last year.
And yet he always returned for postseason play during those years. This time that would have been in question even if the Caps qualified. Green fractured ribs in an April 5 game against the New York Islanders. His season was over four games early.
"He's been banged up and he's been banged up for a few years," Oates said. "We've got to figure out a way to conquer that – for him and us."
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