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How Much Green For Green?

What better way to honor today's national holiday than with a discussion about dead presidents (and lots of 'em)?

With a pair of Alexes signed, sealed and delivering, a portion of the off-ice attention of Caps fans has turned to the task of re-signing the team's other Restricted Free Agents, namely Mike Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich. Most of those guys should be relatively easy to lock up, but one - Green - may present something of a challenge in that it's difficult to determine precisely how much "potential" is worth.

Drafted 29th overall in 2004, Green is having a breakout season in his contract year of 2007-08 (coincidence? Probably). He leads all NHL blueliners in goals (15) and overtime tallies (3), is 12th in points (37), second in game-winning goals (3), fourth in power play goals (7) and fifth in shots on goal (152) - all this after racking up three goals, 12 assists and a minus-18 rating in his first 92 NHL games.

Green - who is 25 days younger than Alex Ovechkin - has really come into his own under head coach Bruce Boudreau, to the tune of 12 goals and 30 points in 39 games in a whopping 26:40 of ice time per game, an average that would rank him 4th in the League in TOI/G if it were his average on the season.

So what's Green worth?

Let's look at a couple of recent deals signed by young blueliners. Dion Phaneuf signed a 6-year/$39m ($6.5m per year) deal earlier in the month. Fedor Tyutin signed a 4-year/$11.375m ($2.8m per year) deal yesterday. You don't need to be Al Morganti to know that Green's deal will fall somewhere in between those two, so let's dig deeper.

Ryan Whitney inked for 6 years at $4m per year as an RFA last summer. Now we're getting somewhere. Whitney, the fifth overall pick in 2002, signed his deal after his second full NHL season, one in which he played 81 games, was sixth among blueliners in scoring with 14 goals and 45 helpers and posted a plus-nine rating. This followed a 68 game, 6 goal/32 assist, minus-seven campaign. In other words, Whitney had 149 games, 20 goals and 77 assists (and a playoff appearance) under his belt before signing his deal. Green, if he continues his "Boudreau pace" through the end of the season, he'll have around 174 games, 24 goals and 44 assists on his resume.

But contracts aren't rewards for what a player has done, they're predictions of what a player will do, and the sky seems to be the limit on what Green might be capable of. Just for fun, here's a quick look at blueliners who have led the League in goals since the beginning of this decade, and how many they had:
  • 1999-00: Nicklas Lidstrom (20)
  • 2000-01: Brian Leetch (21)
  • 2001-02: Sergei Gonchar (26 - damn)
  • 2002-03: Sergei Gonchar, Nicklas Lidstrom, Andy Delmore (18)
  • 2003-04: Wade Redden, Pavel Kubina (17)
  • 2005-06: Mathieu Schneider (21)
  • 2007-08: Sheldon Souray (26)
Not a bad list of blueline bombers, and regardless of what you might think of this crew's abilities in their own zone, one thing is for sure - these guys have gotten paid (with the exception of the undrafted and inconsistent Delmore). Of course, they have gotten paid through unrestricted free agency or the threat thereof, something Mike Green doesn't have on his side.

Which brings us back to Whitney as a benchmark. He has the better pedigree than Green (5th overall vs. 29th, 3rd defenseman taken in his draft vs. 8th), but that doesn't mean much after a player's entry level contract expires. He will have had the more impressive pre-contract stats, but, like we said, contracts are predictions, not rewards. Mike Green, right now, is the better player of the two by most traditional measures - he has more goals and assists, four times as many hits, eight times as many takeaways - and is two-and-a-half years younger. With the salary cap set to rise another $3m or so and general contract inflation, it's highly likely that Green will make more, per annum, than Whitney.

So as we leave Ryan Whitney's neighborhood and drive north, the question is how far do we keep going? Mike Green is not Dion Phaneuf (though they do share an agent, one that prominently displays Green on its website as an indication of their perception of his value). Phaneuf is a guy who scored 20 goals as a rookie, has 48 goals, 93 assists and a plus-18 rating in his first 220 NHL games and hits like an eighteen-wheeler, so we don't get all that far. But Mike Green has shown that he's a capable puck-moving defenseman with fantastic speed and stickhandling who can play both the body and big minutes. He is a legitimate first-pairing blueliner when paired with the right partner, but can get out of his comfort zone otherwise. Most importantly, he's impressive as hell at just 22-years-old.

What's it going to take to keep Green in red, white and blue for the next few years? Given the team's salary structure - in which Alex Semin will make $4.6 million for each of the next two years - a four-year/$18-million deal should certainly get it done (the benefit of a four-year deal being that at the end thereof, he'd still have another year as an RFA), and if it didn't, I'd start preparing myself to accept the draft pick compensation that would be headed our way when Green leaves town. What do you think?