Recognize that fresh-faced kid on top of the goal-scoring chart?
The guy plays for the Washington Capitals and he has been around for a couple of years, although you might not have noticed because the focus on this team generally tends to be Alexander Ovechkin.
|Mike Green's breakout coincides with Washington's turnaround. (Getty Images)|
"I guess I'm a bit surprised at that," Green admits.
He's probably not the only one. The 22-year-old Calgary native is a former first-round draft pick, taken 29th overall in 2004 by the Capitals, who saw some offensive potential in the strapping blue liner despite the modest numbers he was putting up at the junior level with some pretty weak teams. But after a great start to his professional career in the minors, Green took a step backward last season at the NHL level in Washington, making his turnaround this year look like it came out of nowhere.
"It probably seems that way from the outside," admitted Capitals general manager George McPhee. "But when we drafted him, we knew he could be a good player. It just takes a little longer for players to develop sometimes."
The right circumstances don't hurt either. Green turned pro after the lockout, spending most of that season with Washington's top farm team in Hershey, where he played an integral role in helping it claim the American Hockey League title. But when he got to the Capitals for good last season, his skill set was stifled under the suffocating defensive schemes favored by former coach Glen Hanlon. Green ended up struggling with only two goals, 12 points and a minus-10 rating.
Green put himself through a rigorous offseason training program during the summer that helped him shed a few pounds and add a little jump to his step, although there were no apparent benefits early in the campaign when he and the rest of the Capitals got off to a dismal start. In fact, Green was generally an afterthought in conversations about Washington, where most of the attention seemed focused on the team's chances for the lottery pick before the schedule had hit the quarter pole.
That all changed at Thanksgiving when Hanlon was fired and replaced by Bruce Boudreau, who was elevated from Hershey and given his first crack at an NHL job in what seemed to be a desperate attempt by the organization at salvaging the season. The Capitals, who had made several significant offseason moves in the free-agent market, were 6-14-1 at the time of the change, but they have gone 22-12-5 since and are now challenging for the Southeast Division title.
Under Boudreau, who favors a more aggressive puck-pursuit type of game than his conservative predecessor, the Capitals are collectively scoring nearly a full goal per game more now than before. But no one on the team has felt the impact of the new coach's arrival more than Green. The defenseman had just three goals and four assists and was a minus-8 when Boudreau took over, but he has picked up 12 goals and 18 assists and is a plus-7 since, while taking a permanent spot on the team's No. 1 defense unit.
"I played for Bruce in Hershey and I definitely know him and feel comfortable playing for him because he gives you more free rein to do what you can do," Green said. "Last year they were trying to make me into more of a defensive guy, and I was concentrating so much on that, the offense wasn't coming. When you're a player who is limited in what you can do, it's hard to find a balance. But with Bruce, as long as you play smart, he doesn't take away your creativity."
Which is why it's not an uncommon sight to see Green charging up the ice with the puck and often ending up deep in the other's zone to help set up scoring chances for his teammates as he did last weekend in Tampa Bay when he helped set up Alexander Semin's winner in a crucial division matchup.
Green's skating ability is one of his best assets, but he also possesses a heavy and accurate shot from the point and he is not hurting himself in his own end with his defensive play. The result is that he is starting to open a lot of eyes around the league, and that's not a bad thing for a youngster who could become a restricted free agent after the summer.
McPhee expects to sign Green, who is earning the entry-level cap of $850,000, to an extension before that happens. That's a wise move, considering teams are no longer afraid to poach restricted free agents and so many are looking for quality puck moving defenseman, especially those with Green's kind of potential.
"Defensemen don't hit their prime until they're in their mid-20s and he's only in his early 20s," said Boudreau. "There's still lots of room to grow."