His three-game suspension served, Mike Green is set to be return to the Capitals lineup (yet again) when they face Winnipeg on Friday night. In order to make room for the two-time Norris Trophy finalist, Dale Hunter will have to scratch a blueliner, and the decision as to whom to sit will likely be between a couple of guys who've already watched plenty of games in street clothes since Hunter took over behind the Caps bench in Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz. Given that it was the Green suspension that got Hamrlik back into the lineup after eight-straight scratches, perhaps the obvious move would be to send him back to the press box upon Green's return.
But while it might be the obvious move, it would also probably be the wrong one.
That's not a knock on Schultz, who's a fine defender in his own right; Hamrlik just happens to be better. The two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum among the team's blueliners in five-on-five relative Corsi (a measure of shot differential when on ice), and Hamrlik has been much better on the penalty kill, both at suppressing shots (he's an outstanding shot-blocker) and goals (which is a little bit important). All that despite a wretched and/or unlucky start to the season that pretty much turned around upon the coaching change.
And while comparing the two on their individual merits favors Hamrlik, so too does a look at what is among the Caps' most-pressing problems at the moment: getting Mike Green to play like Mike Green.
Green has struggled since returning from abdominal surgery, failing to notch so much as a secondary assist in his ten games played since January. In fact, he hasn't had a point in 13 games, dating back to his initial departure from the lineup. The Caps desperately need Green to return to some semblance of his pre-injury form, and with the Karl Alzner-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Dennis Wideman pairings ostensibly set, any decision about which defenseman to scratch is as much a decision about which one to pair with Green and should ultimately be about allowing Green to be at his most-effective. And that's Hamrlik.
The sample size on Green and Hamrlik is tiny (but, for what it's worth, has produced all three of Green's even-strength points on the season, despite being a less-frequent pair than Green-Schultz). The goals-for/against and Corsi-for/against ratios have been good. The sample size on Green and Schultz is much bigger, dating back years, and has had its big ups (2009-10) and smaller ups (2010-11), and has been good this year.
But even more than the statistics, Hamrlik's game is a better match for Green's right now. Hamrlik was brought to Washington with an eye on playing him with Green. As GM George McPhee said at the time, "he might be a very good fit with Mike Green right now because Mike Green brings a lot of speed, and Hamrlik brings some real good sense, puck movement and good defensive play, so that was our thinking." (And the numbers in Montreal corroborate Hamrlik as someone who can tip the scales in his team's favor on scoring chances.)
Further to the point on Hamrlik's puck movement skills, back in September we noted that pairing Green with even a semi-mobile puck mover could help to protect Green and keep him healthier, longer. Obviously that didn't necessarily pan out as planned, but even without an aggressive strategy on puck retrieval in place, pairing Green with someone who can skate and pass the puck - rather than sending it right back to him behind the net - will reduce the wear and tear on a guy who is already worn and torn.
Ultimately, of course, it is on Mike Green to get his game in order. But it's up to Dale Hunter to ice the lineup that best-maximizes the skills and abilities of the players on his roster. And, for now, that includes playing Roman Hamrlik.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Green's return and potential partners was one of the topics we had planned to cover in this week's Capitals Lunchbox, but were unable to touch upon due to time constraints; some of the thoughts above originated during discussions with Al Koken.)