Monday, April 28, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Mike Green

“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”

― Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations”

As much as any player of the Washington Capitals hockey club, Mike Green has seen it all.  He was drafted in that same 2004 draft that brought Alex Ovechkin to Washington.  He was there for large parts of two difficult, if necessary seasons, coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout when the Caps tried hard but lost far more than they won as the Young Guns – Green among them – were learning their craft.  He was there for the improbable 11-1-0 finish in 2008 that carried the Caps to the post-season for the first time since 2003.  He was there for the Presidents Trophy year, and he was there for the playoff embarrassment that followed. 

Green was there for the long, slow slide thereafter that led to the Caps failing to make the playoffs in 2014 for the first time since 2007.  At the top of his game he was the best offensive defenseman in the game, a record-setter in fact.  After injuries and time, he is now a second pair defenseman with a first pair defenseman’s contract.  He is the only Capital defenseman since that 2004-2005 lockout to appear in at least 400 games regular season games, the only one to appear in 500 regular season games (503).  He was the third oldest defenseman to dress for the Capitals in 2013-2014.

In 2013-2014 Mike Green appeared in 70 regular season games, more than he appeared in over the previous two seasons combined (67 of a possible 130 games).  That 70 games mark is a significant number, the first time Green appeared in at least 70 games in a season since he dressed for 75 games in 2009-2010.  In nine seasons in the NHL, Green has dressed for more than 70 games only twice, that 2009-2010 season and in 2007-2008, when he appeared in all 82 games.

Green’s role changed in 2013-2014, nowhere more so than as the power play quarterback.  In the Capitals playoff era, here is Green’s average ice time on the man advantage, his rank on the club, and his average ice time margin over the next ranked player relative to first place:

Note that the 2011-2012 season in which Green finished second in average power play ice time was one in which: a) Green was limited to 32 games because of injury, and b) the Caps had a suitable replacement in Dennis Wideman who played his only full season in Washington in 2011-2012.  That leaves 2013-2014.  For 49 games Green sailed along as the team leader in average power play ice time, averaging a little over three minutes a game, culminating with a whopping 8:15 in man advantage ice time on January 25th in a 5-0 win over Montreal.

Then things changed, and in an odd sort of way. In his next game Green scored a pair of goals, including the overtime winner, and was the game’s first star in a 5-4 win over Buffalo.  Green once more led the team in power play ice time (2:23), but it would be a while before he would lead the team in power play ice time again.  Mike Green would play only 5:48 in his next game, a 5-2 loss in Columbus in which Green was checked into the glass by the Blue Jackets’ Boone Jenner.  Green suffered a concussion from the hit and did not return to the lineup until after the break for the Sochi Olympic Games.

By that time John Carlson had taken over the reins as the Caps’ power play option from the point.  After the Olympics Carlson and Green played in 19 games together, and in 13 of them Carlson recorded more power play time (in one other game the Caps were not awarded a power play).  That 8:15 of power play ice time was Green’s high water mark for the season.  At that time he averaged 3:05 per game of power play ice time to Carlson’s 2:44.  After than game Green averaged 1:54 of power play ice time per game, Carlson 3:47.

Fearless’ Take… I’ll beat Cheerless to the fancystat punch here.  Of 142 defensemen playing in atleast three-quarters of their games this season, Mike Green was 47th in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 and 41st in 5-on-5 close score situations (52.4).  Not bad for a guy who some fans think is a turnover machine.  And even though he missed a dozen games this season Green remained a top-30 defenseman in goals, assists, points, power play points, and game-winning goals.

Cheerless’ Take… Mike Green was also a top-30 defenseman in giveaways. The Caps also happened to be 8-2-2 in games that Green missed, 30-28-12 in games he played.  In 19 games after the Olympic break, when the Caps were struggling to make a playoff spot, Green finished 2-6-8 and just 1-2-3 in his last 15 games.  The Caps were 6-6-3 in those 15 games.

Odd Green Fact… In only eight of 19 games after the Olympic break did Mike Green finish with a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 above 50 percent.

Game to Remember… January 28th versus Buffalo.  Mike Green earned the nickname “Game Over Green” for his propensity for scoring game-winning goals, often in overtime.  Coming into the 2013-2014 season Green had 16 career game-winning goals, seven of them coming in overtime.  In 2013-2014, however, Green had yet to record a game-winner.  That would change on January 28th.  Green had already recorded a goal in the game against the Sabres in Buffalo, a nifty wrap-around goal that gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the second period. 

The Caps could not hold the lead, though, and the game went to extra time.  In the first minute of overtime Martin Erat led a rush up ice.  After crossing the Sabres line Eraqt dropped the puck for Alex Ovechkin a tht etop of the left wing circle.  Ovechkin stepped up, giving every indication he was going to take the shot himself.  When the Sabres’ defense slid to his side of the ice, and goalie Jhonas Enroth stepped out to defend the shot, Ovechkin laid the puck off to the weak side where Green was filling in.  Green took the pass and wristed it past the diving Enroth for the game-winner, his eighth overtime career game-winning goal in the Caps’ 5-4 win.

Game to Forget… April 1st versus Dallas.  In a game the Capitals had to have in their late-season rush to make the playoffs, the Caps came up short. Way short.  And Mike Green got an all too close-up view of it.  Green was on ice for three of the five Dallas Stars goals in a 5-0 loss at Verizon Center.  With the Stars holding a 1-0 lead in the second period, the Stars found themselves on a two-on-none break against goalie Jaroslav Halak after a slow Caps line change.  Green was the defenseman back at the end of what would be a 1:27 shift.  His legs weary, Green did not get back quickly on the play, allowing Ray Whitney to deke Halak to the ice, tap the puck out to the top of the crease, and sweep it into the net while Green was struggling to get back into the play. 

In the third period with the Stars up 3-0, Green was caught at the end of another long shift (1:31) left spinning at the top of the crease as Whitney found Dustin Jeffrey coming late on a play to beat Halak to make it 4-0.  There was one more goal left in the Stars’ bag, and Green was on ice for that one, too, at the end of yet another long shift (1:27).  This one came with the Caps on a power play.  Vernon Fiddler ripped the puck around the end wall and up the left wing boards, springing Ryan Garbutt for a break.  Garbutt skated past a gassed Green and in alone on Halak for the period at the end of the sentence for the Caps in a game that was one more blown chance to crawl into the top eight for a playoff berth.

In the end…

Only ten defensemen in the league have higher salary cap hits than Mike Green.  Three or four years ago, when Green was the top offensive defenseman in the league, such a position might have been justified.  But Green is now a second-pair defenseman with a first-pair contract.  And despite his having played in 70 games this past season, one would not call him restored to vitality as far as his durability is concerned. 

Green will be entering the last year of his current contract in 2014-2015.  His 2013-2014 performance was just tantalizing enough to think that maybe he can justify another extension with the Caps.  On the other hand, one might also think of it as tantalizing enough to other clubs to enable the Caps get find some salary cap relief as the Young Guns era moves toward its inevitable conclusion, and the Caps try to remake themselves into a contender once more.

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Erskine

"By the work one knows the workman."
-- Jean de La Fontaine

John Erskine’s 2013-2014 season looked a lot like his 2012-2013 season, which looked a lot like his 2011-2012 season.  That is not good news.  Erskine dressed for only 37 games this season.  That happens to be a personal high over the past three seasons over which he appeared in 95 of 212 games.  Erskine missed 37 games to injury this past season and another three to a suspension.  Thought of early on as a potential second-pair defenseman in 2013-2014, he became part of the parade of defensemen marching through the third pair over the course of the season.  As it was his longest string of consecutive games played was 17, from December 15th through January 19th, and he appeared in only two of the Caps last 19 games.

Erskine is not what one would call an offensive defenseman, and his games played do not make for easy evaluation or comparison.  But there are a few things to point out.  For instance, at 5-on-5, John Erskine finished 176th of 230 defensemen playing at least 25 percent of their teams’ games in goals-for percentage (44.7 percent of all goals scored when he was on ice).  He was nestled between Mike Green (175th/44.8 percent) and Karl Alzner (177th/44.6 percent).    Oddly enough, though, his goals for percentage on ice relative to the teams’ performance with him not on the ice (+1.5 percent) was 84th in the league and roughly equivalent to teammate John Carlson (+1.6 percent) and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh (+1.6 percent).

Erskine suffered from the nature of his partners this season, although the suffering might have been mutual.  In Erskine’s limited action he played more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with only two partners on defense – Connor Carrick and Steve Oleksy.  That is a pair that would finish the season with a combined 95 games of NHL experience.  Erskine’s experience with those partners was like night and day, or more precisely early and late. 

Erskine played 154 minutes of 5-on-5 time with Oleksy this season, all of it by January 4th, corresponding to Oleksy’s last game of the season with the Caps.  Paired with Erskine at 5-on-5, Oleksy had a goals-for/goals-against per 20 minutes of +0.26.  That sounds rather good until one looks at Olesky’s 5-on-5 goal differential when apart from Erskine (+0.35).  Erskine’s experience with Carrick was a bit different.  Carrick’s goal differential per 20 minutes with Erskine at 5-on-5 was 0.00.  When apart, though, Carrick’s goal differential was -0.49.  Strange results are these.

Fearless’ Take… Did you know that only 13 defensemen in Capitals history have played in more games for the club than John Erskine?  He passed Darren Veitch and Yvon Labre this season and now has 350 games played in a Capitals uniform.  Only Mike Green among active Capitals have appeared in more games with the club (503).

Cheerless’ Take… Nine defensemen played in at least 20 games for the Caps this season, including John Erskine.  Of those nine defensemen Erskine was seventh in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (45.7) and seventh in Fenwick-for percentage (44.7).  The only players with lower numbers were Alexander Urbom (44.2/44.2), who is no longer with the club, and Connor Carrick (43.9/42.8), who might have been better served being in Hershey for more of the season.

Odd Erskine Fact… The Caps were 13-17-7 in games in which Erskine appeared and 25-13-7 in games in which he did not.

Game to Remember… January 25th versus Montreal.  John Erskine does not score goals often, so those he does get are sort of memorable by definition.  However, the one he scored in Montreal on January 25th was bizarre.  After a scoreless first period the Caps took the lead 1:46 into the second period on a goal by Alex Ovechkin.  Less than two minutes later the Caps started out of their own zone with John Carlson sending the puck up to Troy Brouwer before heading to the bench.  Brouwer left a touch pass for Martin Erat, who carried the puck into the Montreal end.  Erat put on the breaks at the right wing wall waiting for the play to unfold.  He spied Erskine coming late down the middle.  Erskine was about to be tied up by Brandon Prust when he sort of half shot, half shoveled the puck at the Canadiens’ net.  The puck crawled along the ice past Prust, past P.K. Subban, past Brooks Laich, and between the pads of goalie Carey Price, settling softly in the back of the net to give the Caps a 2-0 lead on their way to a 5-0 win at Bell Centre.

Game to Forget…  March 5th versus Philadelphia.  The Caps’ schedule for March included a home-and-home set of games against the Flyers, the first in Washington on March 2nd and the second on March 5th in Philadelphia.  Washington dropped the front end of the set, 5-4 in overtime, and was looking to salvage a split in Philadelphia.  The Flyers got off fast with a pair of goals in the first eight and a half minutes.  Then things got angry.  In the 12th minute Tom Wilson laid a hit on Brayden Schenn in the Washington end, and as the puck spun around the boards John Erskine put a hit on Vincent Lecavalier.  That was merely prelude.  Wheh the Caps dumped the puck into the Flyers’ end on the ensuing rush, Luke Schenn laid the lumber to Ryan Stoa. 

That brought Wilson back into the picture to take on Schenn.  While this was going on, John Erskine stepped in on Wayne Simmonds.  That led to a pile up in the corner with Erskine tumbling to the ice, and when Erskine got to his feet it was Lecavalier standing in his way.  Erskine and Lecavalier started in on one another, which led to Simmonds coming in to Lecavalier’s assistance.  He grabbed Erskine from behind, tying up Erskine from throwing any more punches and leaving Lecavalier free to throw a couple of his own.  Erskine went down to end the fracas, and the fall would end Erskine’s night after just 5:34 of time on ice.  The Caps went on to lose the contest, 6-4, and Erskine would miss the next ten games.

In the end…

Time and circumstance have taken their toll on John Erskine.  In seven seasons with the Capitals (not including the abbreviated 48-game 2012-2013 season) he has appeared in more than 55 games in a season only once.  It is not for lack of trying or will; Erskine remains, night in and night out, among the hardest workers on the ice when he is in the lineup.  One must wonder, though, just how much Erskine has left to give.  He will be 34 on Opening Night of the 2014-2015 season, and while that is not inordinately old for a hockey player, his injury history suggests that he might be an “old” 34. 

In that respect his 2013-2014 season was not unusual and seems at least as likely as not to serve as a preview of the future.  He was available on a limited basis, and both his production and underlying numbers did not suggest a consistent level of effectiveness when he was in the lineup.  One might hope for better, but one cannot help but think that the body of work John Erskine put together this season is going to be of the sort he displays going forward.

Grade: C-

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America