Earlier this week The Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek did something that may be a first for a Canadian journalist: he wrote an article about Mike Green which praised the two-time Norris Trophy finalist's defense.
Unsurprisingly, both jokes and legtimate counterpoints were made in response (particularly to the assertion that "Bruce Boudreau is using Green and Jeff Schultz as his shutdown defensive pair"), the latter of which tend to focus primarly on the premise that Green is playing "easy" minutes, sheltered by his coach from facing high-quality competition.
If one can get past the absurdity of the notion that a player who has averaged nearly 28 minutes per night over the seven games for which he has been healthy can be "hidden," there are some valid underlying points. Green's five-on-five QualComp (which essentially measures the quality of the players against whom an individual has played) is lowest among all Caps blueliners and ranks near the bottom among big-minute rearguards League-wide. And he does start a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone (as you would expect from someone with his offensive prowess on a team where that skill-set at that position is decidedly lacking).
But is Mike Green really being protected?
Let's begin with the premise that a coach can "hide" a player (or play him in a match up of his choosing) at home by matching lines, but can't do so on the road nearly as easily, due to the fact that visiting squads have to put their lines out first at every whistle. Bruce Boudreau - who notoriously doesn't match lines, even at home - is going to play his guys when he wants to on the road (and the other team is going to react if they so choose), but could try to get away from or into certain match ups if he wanted to at home. So we're not going to look at road games here. Also, this issue is primarily concerned with five-on-five hockey, as the concept of "hiding" a guy is largely inapplicable to special teams (though it should be noted that Green is getting big penalty kill minutes, which one wouldn't expect from someone whose defensive shortcomings are being buried). Finally, when examining the opponents against whom Green is skating, we're only concerned with the forwards (though the QualComp metric includes blueliners), since coaches don't ordinarily send out defensemen to shut down opposing defensemen. With that in mind, here's a game-by-game look (remember, home games only) at how Bruce Boudreau has used Mike Green:
Game 2, NJD - Green played the most against Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk
Game 3, OTT - Green played the most against Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson
Game 4, NYI - Green played the most against Blake Comeau, Matt Moulson and Trent Hunter (with John Tavares out of the Isles' lineup)
Game 6, BOS - Green did not play
Game 8, ATL - Green did not play at even strength
Game 9, TOR - Green played the most against Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg and Mikhail Grabovski
So what do we see? First and foremost, Green is playing more of his minutes against opponents' top forwards than against anyone else. Granted, he may not be sent out to shut opposing top lines down (in some of those games he was the top Cap against these trios, in others he was not, lending credence to the suggestion that Boudreau is in fact not using him as a "shutdown" defender), but he's certainly not being protected from playing against opposition's best offensive threats.
You'll also notice that this (tiny) sample is four games against teams that rank (as of this writing) 30th, 21st, 20th and 26th in the League in goals per game, respectively, and 24th, 20th, 30th and 12th in goals against. Teams with those rankings aren't likely going to have too many players who are going to boost opponents' QualComp (missing those two Boston games and the Nashville tilt certainly hurt Green here). And, of course, the sample size itself at this point of the season also contributes to some silly results... unless you think Bruce Boudreau has been using Brian Fahey as his shutdown guy.
Green's QualComp, generally, also takes a hit from the fact that when he's on the ice, it's usually with one of the Caps' top two lines, which often means that opposing coaches put out their checkers... which tends to mean inherently lower QualComp, precisely because those checkers tend to face an abundance of high-scoring competition and not score much at all. (On the flip side of that coin, see Fahey, against whom opposing coaches have poured their skill guys over the boards in order to try to maximize an advantage.)
The bottom line here is that you can chalk up Green's low QualComp mostly to the teams the Caps have faced, the number of games he's played so far, and the players opposing coaches put on the ice to stop the Caps' Young Guns, but saying that he's being intentionally "hidden" from top competition? That's a much harder sell.
And the next time someone tells you that Mike Green plays easy minutes, tell him he's right - Mike Green does play easy minutes. And hard minutes. And everything in between. As the commercial says, he's been on the ice the whole time.