Four months ago, Mike Green experienced a letdown of almost unbelievable proportions.
After the best offensive regular season by a defenseman in 15 years, Green was a Norris Trophy finalist, a shoo-in to play for his native Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics and, with a nearly limitless future, one of the most sought-after personalities in the sport.
Four days from now, Green begins his quest to get all that back.
After a regular season Green couldn’t have scripted in a dream, his postseason was a nightmare. A lingering shoulder injury and illness limited his effectiveness for the Washington Capitals, and he was far from the dominant force he had been just weeks before.
While he had nine points in 14 games, he had no goals against Pittsburgh in the second round and was a minus-5 in the series, including a minus-3 in the disastrous finale.
“I was just so mentally drained,” the 23-year-old said. “The way I play - I just couldn’t do it, because I was so drained. The playoffs are so important and you have to be so mentally fresh, but I wasn’t.”
Rarely has a player who completed such a transcendent regular season dealt with such a dramatic fall from grace. Suddenly, Green was being cast as a forward masquerading as a defenseman and a bubble candidate for Team Canada.
Even worse than the scrutiny Green faced for his offensive performance were the questions about his weight, conditioning and commitment to his defensive responsibilities.
“[The criticism] was fair - he didn’t play the way he wanted to or the way we expected him to,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “But that’s the nature of this business. This isn’t scripted. You expect certain things from people, and sometimes it just doesn’t go that way.”
Some of the criticism became personal. When the team was winning and he was scoring goals at a prodigious pace, Green was a burgeoning talent whose passion for fast cars, fashion and enjoying life had him ascending toward rock star status.
But when he struggled in the postseason and the Caps ultimately met their demise, Green was labeled as a guy who liked to party too much and wasn’t focused enough on his career.
“I can’t really worry about what people think or write,” Green said. “When things are going well, you never see any of that stuff. When it isn’t going well, there’s rumors and just gossip, really.
“The funny thing was, I wasn’t going out and enjoying myself at all during the playoffs. Maybe I should have been. I was trying to do everything I could to prepare for those games and it wasn’t working out, which was really frustrating.”
Green acknowledged his weight did become an issue, especially when illness sapped some of what typically seems like a limitless reserve of energy. To alleviate that problem, Green switched his focus a bit during his offseason training at Crash Conditioning in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Instead of just trying to add muscle, Green shed a considerable amount of weight - and intends on keeping it off as the season progresses.
“I am so focused on everything I can do to be fresh this year, from training to eating right and taking care of myself and playing the way I need to play,” Green said. “That’s the way I am and my body has always been. It was like that the year before, and it was like that the year we won the [Calder] Cup in Hershey. It has never affected my play in the past. Maybe it did just a little last year.
“It isn’t easy being a professional athlete - from the travel to eating all the time. I’ve been through enough now to learn from it.”
Added McPhee: “We can [talk to Green about his weight] and we have, but that is really up to the players. The players learn early in their career what works best for them. … Mike likes to play physical once in a while, and he likes to have that weight, but he’s probably learned that he is better off staying a little leaner and using his speed. He’s gone up and down in his weight, and he’s probably learned that he is a little bit more effective as a player being lighter instead of more bulky.”
If Green were mentally exhausted, it may have come from thinking too much. It isn’t often that a talented athlete deals with an identity crisis on such a grand stage, but that was another issue for Green.
One day during the postseason, Green said he wasn’t playing up to his expectations because he needed to be more passive and more concerned with his play in the defensive end. Then a few games later, Green changed his mind and felt he needed to forget about trying to change how he plays and just be his typical, aggressive self.
“He was putting a lot of pressure on himself, and don’t forget this was a young man who had never received that kind of media attention - ever,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think it is one of those things that you learn from going through it, and he’ll be better for it this year.”
Now the humbled, sleeker Green is ready for the new season to begin and his chance to prove his critics wrong. After becoming the first defenseman to score 30 goals since the 1992-93 season, Green could lead the league in goals at his position for a third consecutive season.
The addition of Mike Knuble could help make the offense, and particularly the power play, even more potent, and the potential is there for Green to improve on his 31 goals and 73 points from a year ago.
“I want to score 40,” Green said. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I think you have to have a benchmark to shoot for. If it doesn’t happen, it isn’t a big deal, but I want to try.”
The start of the 2009-10 campaign will be extremely important for Green, not only to forget about how last season ended but also for his Team Canada prospects. Playing for country is a big deal for most NHL players - Alex Ovechkin made that pretty clear with his comments about his commitment to play at the 2014 games in his homeland regardless of the NHL’s participation - but Green is incredibly passionate about making Canada’s entry for the Vancouver games in February.
Green needs a great start to the season because there will be top-notch defensemen left off Canada’s roster. His ability to skate with the puck and prowess on the power play would be an added weapon for the Canadians, but he must ease concerns about his two-way play.
“Being able to play for my country in the Olympics is something I would have never even dreamed of 10 years ago. It would be an amazing experience,” Green said. “I know I need to show everyone I can improve my defense because people don’t think I am as good at it or whatever. It isn’t easy being defensive-minded when you also are expected to contribute so much offensively. If my offense suffers while I concentrate on defense people would probably criticize me about that then.”
Green has committed to better nutrition habits and increased attention to his defensive positioning. Still, he isn’t about to stop enjoying the spoils of being an incredibly talented hockey player - whether it is a new tattoo, a new white Lamborghini (to replace the old one) or showcasing his condominium on a forthcoming episode of the MTV show “Cribs.”
“What’s not to love?” teammate and good friend Brooks Laich said. “He plays on a fantastic hockey team. He’s a young, good-looking kid. He’s got money in his pocket and a charming smile, so he’s on top of the world right now.”