Mike Green was physically overwhelmed at times last season as a 21-year old defenseman trying to survive in the NHL.
He didn’t have a long summer because he was with Hershey of the American Hockey League during its run to the Calder Cup finals, but Green made good use of the time he had.
“I think I dedicated myself,” Green said. “I got a year under my belt last year to really see what it takes to be a professional and succeed at this level. I just really dedicated myself, and I have a great trainer back home. I just concentrated on core and legs, and it feels like it has paid off in camp.”
At No. 29 overall, Green was the Washington Capitals‘ third pick in the first round of the 2004 draft after Alex Ovechkin (first) and Jeff Schultz (27th). He spent the majority of his first professional season with the Bears in 2005-06 but did play in 22 games with the Caps.
Last year he spent 70 games in Washington, scoring two goals and 12 points before a late season demotion to Hershey. After racking up 24 points in 32 games (including 16 in 19 playoff games), Green took about a week off, and then it was back to work.
Green worked out for 3½ hours a day with Doug Crashley of Calgary-based Crash Conditioning, which also helps train some other top young defensemen with Western Hockey League ties, such as Thomas Hickey of Los Angeles and Cody Franson of Vancouver.
“I can see the improvement already, and he really hasn’t played any games,” assistant coach Jay Leach said. “First of all, he’s stronger — when he goes to the wall he’s coming out with pucks more often. It’s just his maturity. It’s a boy becoming a man playing. That’s pretty much what this game is. When you are  years old and playing against men, it is not easy to be error-free.”
Green made the team out of training camp last season and was selected to play in the YoungStars game during All-Star weekend. Since then, the Caps have traded for Milan Jurcina, signed Tom Poti and Josef Boumedienne in the offseason and got a breakout spring from Schultz in his first extended NHL action.
All of those developments mean Green is in a serious battle to avoid returning to Hershey for the beginning of the season.
“I need to listen to the coaches and the system,” Green said. “They’ve changed some things up, and I feel like if I can get tuned in to what they are trying to sell, I will be OK.”
Added coach Glen Hanlon: “What we are asking Mike to do is just be consistent all around. Just let us know you are going to make the same decision every single time on every situation. If you play a situation the same every time, from the goalie play angle, it doesn’t matter if you play it a little bit wrong. If you do same thing every single time, the goalies and everyone else seems to feed off of it.”
Green’s ability to stick with the Caps is tied to his development in his own end. He certainly has the potential to be a dynamic offensive player, as evidenced by his end-to-end rush at Colorado last October that proved to be one of the Caps’ best goals of the season.
“He’s coming around. He still has a ways to go,” Leach said. “The toughest thing for defensemen in this league at a young age is to be able to play with these guys with speed and creativity and know where to be defensively. To be able to read rushes or break down transitions in a heartbeat and be in position to make a play — outside of playing goal that is the hardest job in hockey.
“He’s fortunate his learning curve might be a lot quicker because he’s got such a great set of wheels. He has a real savvy with the puck. He has those tools that a lot of defensemen don’t have.”
Note — The Caps trimmed the training camp roster by 20 yesterday, sending 19 players to Hershey and releasing Dan Kronick. Some of the notable players who survived include Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson, Dave Steckel and Sasha Pokulok.