Admit it. You saw the title and immediately thought something to the effect of: “You can't be the best defensemen if you don't play defense, and all Mike Green does is play like a fourth forward.”
Your commenting fingers are a tingle, ready to drop some knowledge on the hapless teenage author desperately in need of a Hockey 101 lesson. Mike Green can’t play defense, Jim. Everyone knows that!
Well, I hope you will keep those commenting fingers on standby, but I’m not a naïve teenager, and I’m well aware of the public perception of Mike Green even amongst hockey diehards. Great skater, great shot, great power play quarterback,and great defensive liability.
I’m here to argue that Mike Green is more than just a non-liability in his own zone. In fact, I’m here to suggest that Mike Green is amongst the most effective defensive defensemen in the NHL this season. Counter-intuitive as it may be, the numbers bear it out.
Combined with his immense offensive talents, Mike Green is an elite defensemen waiting to be fully recognized by fans.
Prologue - Offense
Before diving into the tough stuff, Mike Green’s offensive prowess deserves a survey.
At age 23, in only his third full season, Mike Green’s offensive game is impossible to miss.
On the heels of a season where he led the NHL in goals by defensemen, Mike Green again leads NHL defensemen in goals scored (15), and is tied for the defensive lead in NHL points (40). All this, despite missing 13 games with a shoulder injury.
In the past 82 games—a full season’s worth—Mike Green has 25 goals, 53 assists, 78 points, and a +30 rating.
Having played only 38 games this year, Mike Green is scoring at a point per game pace. For some perspective, only 15 forwards can match Mike Green’s scoring rate this year.
It has been 13 seasons since 2010 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee-to-be Brian Leetch last achieved the point per game plateau as a defensemen. If Mike Green is not already the NHL’s best offensive defensemen, he is certainly on the short list, and the list is getting shorter by the day.
Measuring defensive prowess is a matter of finding a group of meaningful statistical snapshots rather than a single all-clarifying formula. My thesis is that the essence of defense is preventing goals.
Put simply, if the opponent doesn’t score when a defensemen takes a shift, the shift has been a success. Is this a perfect definition? Absolutely not. But it is has the luxury of being simple and surprisingly informative.
The oft-utilized plus/minus stat is inherently flawed as a tool of defensive prowess. A player who scores a ton, or plays on a top offensive club, will always benefit from an inflated plus/minus even if he is responsible for a bunch of goals against. However, goals against per game (GA/G) isolates a player’s ability or lack of ability to prevent goals from being scored.
With this in mind, we proceed.
Even Strength Defense
Zdeno Chara. Chris Pronger. Scott Niedermayer. Nicklas Lidstrom. Shea Weber. Jay Bouwmeester. Duncan Keith. Brian Campbell. Dion Phaneuf. Kimmo Timonen. Andrei Markov. Dan Boyle. Aside from being a who’s who of elite NHL defensemen, what do these players have in common? Every single one of them has been on the ice for more even-strength goals per game than Mike Green.
In 38 games, playing over 25:35 per game (10th in the NHL) Mike Green has only been on the ice for 23 even strength goals against. That’s good for a 0.6 goals against per game (23 / 38 = 0.6).
By comparison, at a GA/G of 1.2 (57 goals against in 48 games), 2008 Norris finalist Dion Phaneuf is literally twice as prone to being on the ice when a 5-on-5 goal is scored against his team compared to Mike Green.
Six-time Norris Trophy winner and all time legend Nick Lidstrom is at 0.7. Even leading 08-09 Norris candidate Zdeno Chara, playing for a team that has allowed the fewest goals per game in the NHL, rates worse than Green with a 0.65.
If the goal of a defensemen is to avoid surrendering goals, Mike Green stacks up exceptionally well with the most reputed defensive talents in the NHL. This, while playing without a consistent defensive partner, without an elite defensive teammate, and without an elite goaltender on a team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in total goals allowed.
The Penalty Kill
One of the more common knocks on Mike Green is the fact that he is not a premier penalty killer. Even on his own team, Mike Green only ranks fourth in shorthanded time on ice per game among the everyday top six defensemen.
From this fact, some assume that Mike Green doesn't play big minutes on the kill because he can't. Or, at least, because nearly anyone else the Caps have is more desirable for the job.
However, these folks simply do not account for the possibility that a coach may elect to devote a young player who logs top five power play minutes in the entire NHL to a role that does not include penalty killing as a major priority.
Take a look at Green's shorthanded work compared to his teammates. The following is a list of the Caps' eight leading players in terms of shorthanded ice time, ranked based on frequency the opposition scores when they are on the ice killing penalties:
- Karl Alzner: 1 PP goal against every 4.6 PK minutes
- Shaone Morrisonn: 6.7 minutes
- Milan Jurcina: 6.8 minutes
- Tom Poti: 6.8 minutes
- Jeff Schultz: 7.8 minutes
- Tyler Sloan: 9.2 minutes
- John Erskine: 10.2 minutes
- Mike Green: 29.1 minutes
Somewhat amazingly, Mike Green has played over 88 minutes of shorthanded hockey, and been on the ice for only three power play goals against. Said another way, that’s the equivalent of killing off 41 out of 44 minor penalties, a 93.2 percent clip.
Playing with the same forwards, the same goalie, in the same game, Mike Green has a staggering edge on his defensive teammates.
And once again, even when one adjusts for games played and shorthanded time on ice per game, Mike Green ranks better—usually dramatically better—than just about every other elite NHL defensemen one can think of, including each of the guys discussed above.
All time great Scott Niedermayer is on the ice for a goal every 9.0 minutes of shorthanded time. All-star starter Andrei Markov rates at a man-advantage goal against every 6.9 minutes. Trade deadline darling Jay Bouwmeester is on the ice for a power play goal against every 7.1 minutes.
While 2:17 short handed minutes per game is significantly less than many top “shutdown” defensemen, and 88 minutes is not a tremendous sample size. It speaks volumes that Mike Green never seems to be on the ice when the other team scores, no matter the situation.
That his coach chooses to ask this young player to focus much of his energy on scoring rather than penalty killing does not mean his defense is a weakness.
I will be the first to admit that these numbers do not tell the whole story. Few would argue that Mike Green gets the best of Nick Lidstrom in a battle of defensive ability, and I’m not one of them. Lidstrom gets matched up against opposing teams’ best lines.
Green generally does not play that role because the Caps don’t play matchups with their defensive lines. This alone can have a potent effect on the statistical metrics. However, any way you slice it, Mike Green’s defensive product has been effective in the most important way of all—he prevents goals.
Fans may be a little slow on the uptake, but those within the sport and in the media are taking notice. The Norris buzz is already starting. While the award is Zdeno Chara’s to lose this year (with good reason), Mike Green is going to be in the mix for the next decade or more.
So, the next time you hear someone mock Green as a one-dimensional player, remember that perception is often slow to catch up with reality. Mike Green is an elite two-way defenseman, and he’s only 23 years old.