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Two Dudes: The Grass is Always Greener?

Whomever the Capitals hire as the new general manager, there is work to be done to turn the team around. Could that process of revitalization start with moving one of the roster's mainstays in the post-lockout era?

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As Washington Capitals fans are well aware, George McPhee has been relieved of his duties and the organization is in the process of finding a new GM. Regardless of who manages the team going forward, there is work to be done and possibly major decisions to be made. After reaching dizzying regular-season heights from 2008-2011, the team has been moving in the wrong direction for several years (two, if you ask McPhee), and the status quo is clearly not acceptable. One major task facing the next GM of the Caps is determining which players are capable of leading the team back to Stanley Cup contention, and which players are partly responsible for the current state of affairs.

Perhaps no one player epitomizes the rise and fall of this Capitals team like Mike Green. After Bruce Boudreau took over on November 22nd, 2007, Green exploded for 15 goals and 34 assists in the remaining 61 games before putting up 3 goals and 4 assists in a seven-game opening-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. To put that into perspective, Green's 49 points just under Boudreau would have made him the 12th highest-scoring defenseman that year.

The next two years, Mike Green would put up two of the best offensive seasons by a defenseman ever in the history of the NHL. Adjusting for the era, Green's 09-10 season ranks 18th all-time in terms of points by a defenseman in a single season, and seasons one through seventeen on that list all belong to players in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Orr, Coffey, MacInnis, Leetch, and Potvin. Green's 08-09 season is 14th all-time in terms of goals in a season by a defenseman. For a stretch of five years, good things generally happened when Green was on the ice.

Unfortunately Green wasn't always on the ice. With the exception of 07-08, Green missed time due to injury or suspension every year: 14 games in 08-09; 7 games in 09-10; 33 games in 10-11; 50 games in 11-12, 13 games in 12-13, and 12 games in 13-14. Over six seasons, that's added up to 136 games lost, or roughly 1.5 full seasons. Green's high-risk style of play exacerbated his relative fragility. Green would often hold onto the puck just one moment too long and end up absorbing a hit that would lead to bumps, bruises, or worse. In recent years, Green's groin muscles fell victim to the Verizon Center ice like so many Caps before him (Jeff Friesen, Chris Clark, Tom Poti, Brooks Laich...), eventually requiring surgery.

For all his struggles since 2010, Green led the Caps' defense in scoring during the 2013-2014 - and did so despite having lost his position as the point man in the first power-play unit to John Carlson midway through the season. Green was also second on the entire team in CorsiRel, behind only his usual defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov. At the same time, it became clear that John Carlson was (and is) the team's number one defenseman. He takes the tough minutes at even strength and also sees the most time shorthanded. Green has seemingly become a second-pairing defenseman, and at a cap hit of almost $6.1 million, a very expensive second-pairing defenseman for a team that lacks adequate salary cap room to fill the many holes on the roster.

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The trajectory of Green's career mirrors that of the Caps during the "Young Guns" era: a meteoric rise, followed by a rapid fall, and finally settling in a pool of uncertainty. When he was good, Green was arguably the Caps' MVP - he played the most minutes and, as an "active" defenseman, covered pretty much the entire ice surface. His skating ability and breakout passes were the spark that ignited the Caps' fast-break offense. On the other hand, Green's injuries, lack of production, and regression defensively have left the Caps paying 8.67% of next year's projected salary cap for an injury-prone 2/3 defenseman prone to crippling boners (and here we thought we'd seen the last of Tom Poti). Surely the Caps' decline post-Boudreau has affected Green's play, but at the same time, the decline in Green's play post-Boudreau is partly responsible for the Caps' decline. Chicken, meet egg.

With that rather lengthy introduction out of the way, we turn it over to Rob and D'oh to determine if Green is a valuable piece of the Caps' future, or an anchor that has been crippling the roster with a poor salary-to-performance ratio.

D'ohboy: "We want to compete for the Stanley Cup, so we traded away our best puck-moving defenseman" ...said no NHL GM ever. Green may never again be the player he was from 2007 through 2010, but he's still the Caps' most talented offensive defenseman by a fairly wide margin, and his production is still respectable by NHL standards. He was 28th overall in points by a defenseman, and that's after the decreased power play time and simply atrocious puck-luck. He had the team's 6th-worst on-ice shooting percentage 5v5 and the fifth-worst save percentage. Green himself shot 5.2%, which is a full three points below his career average.

I'll be the first to admit that Green's apparent regression since 2010 has been a contributing factor to the team's decline, but it's difficult to separate all the potential causal factors out analytically. It's clear that Green was well suited for Boudreau's original system, and he struggled more once the team tried to become more defensively oriented. It's also clear that injuries slowed Green down, particularly before he had abdominal surgery. Finally, Green's production suffered alongside the rest of the team under Adam Oates' "coaching," and he lost his primary role on the power play, which was the one aspect of the team that actually functioned over the last two seasons. Is it the system? Is it the injuries? Is it the lack of power-play time? Is it the team-wide collapse under Oates? The answers to those questions likely determine Green's future value, but they're intertwined in an analytical Gordian (Howe) Knot.

Jettisoning [Green] now would be a shortsighted "sell-low" move.

The last few games of the season notwithstanding, Green looks as healthy as he's been since 2010 and with a full offseason of training (and no post-season pounding), he should be 100% to start the season, which is more than we could assume in years past. Injuries happen, and Green may never play a full 82-game season, but at least he appears to be over his nagging lower-body injuries. With Oates gone, the team's overall five-on-five play is likely to recover. Provided Green gets sufficient ice time and decent partners (rather than a rotating cast of rookies and AHL castoffs), he's likely to be much more productive going forward. Jettisoning him now would be a shortsighted "sell-low" move.

Rob: Pithy as your opening question may be, we both know it's not an accurate framing of the issue. Sure, if the Caps were ready to compete for a Cup and wanted an elite scorer/passer from the back end, maybe they hold on to Green. But the Caps are not on the cusp of contention. We both know it. Hell, you didn't think they were legit contenders when Mike Green was an elite player, so it's odd that you'd think he's a key to their success going forward. The fact of the matter is that the Washington Capitals have been going backwards since 2010. They've had basically the same group of players on the ice (certainly if you go by percentage of ice time), the same leadership core in the locker room (whatever that looks like), and they've tried every range of coaching strategies you could envision (from "all-out offense and defense be damned" to "all-out defense and offense be damned" to "chuck the puck off the glass and offense and defense be damned"), and yet, this team has been moving in the same direction ever since the Habs series.

Something has to change, and it won’t be limited to in the front office and behind the bench (by necessity and common sense; a new GM isn't going to come in and sit on a roster that just missed the playoffs). This team needs a shake-up, and there aren't a lot of options for impactful changes. Green is on a short contract and could actually help a better-constructed team. What he could bring back, including the flexibility to re-make the team and address other concerns, is more valuable than what the Caps would be losing. He's an offense-only guy that couldn't hold down the first-unit point spot. His even strength assists are drying up. He's not the dynamic offensive threat he once was, but he's every bit the defensive liability. If the Caps want a one-dimensional puck mover that doesn't produce a ton at even strength and is an adventure on defense, they could do it for cheaper with Dmitri Orlov or Nate Schmidt. They should open up $6 million and change, start the painful process of a roster makeover, and let Green get a fresh start somewhere else.

D'oh:As for Green's fit within the system, hopefully the next coaching staff will implement a system that capitalizes on the Caps' strengths. Despite coaching a team rife with blueliners that can carry the puck, Oates and his staff thought it best to encourage their defensemen to force outlet passes or chip the puck out to neutral ice.

And as already noted, Green was particularly unlucky in 2013-2014, partly because he was saddled with inexperienced partners in Orlov and Schmidt. With Orlov in particular, Green was placed in the awkward position of being the "conservative" defenseman responsible for covering for his partners' mistakes. Green's ideal partner is almost exactly the opposite - someone who can cover for him when he takes risks. Despite this roster mismanagement (again, thanks Oates & Co.), Green still put up (relatively) excellent possession stats. If the Caps can hire a marginally-competent coaching staff and add some depth on defense, Green's production should regress (in a good way) to the mean.

Moving Green this offseason takes an already thin defense and cuts a major hole in it. The Caps need to add to their defensive depth, not subtract from it. It's doubtful that a team would want to do a straight-up defenseman-for-defenseman trade, and Green is a distressed asset right now so he's probably not bringing back a haul of picks, prospects, or NHL players. If he were traded for picks or prospects (or bought out) Green's $6.1 million in cap space could maybe be used to procure assets; unfortunately this year's crop of UFA defensemen isn't exactly inspiring, though. Matt Niskanen is arguably the best player available, but he's likely to be looking for dollars and term, and he's a step down from Green in terms of offense. Maybe the Caps can get lucky and find a Tom Gilbert-like bargain on a one-year deal, but Gilbert is, again, a major step back from Green in terms of quality and it still doesn't address the need for another defenseman.

I can possibly see the argument that trading Green might help the team in the long run, but as John Maynard Keynes was fond of saying, "in the long run, we're all dead." Trading Green without a clear plan as to how to replace him on a defensive corps that's already shallower than the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool is de-facto capitulating on next year.

Rob: Yes, on paper there isn't anybody available on the UFA market that can replace Green. But there are plenty of cheaper guys that can play better defense and make a decent first pass. This team doesn't need high-risk, high-reward on defense; they've got a few of them in the pipeline already. They need guys that can play solid defense (especially if Karl Alzner doesn't rebound). With Carlson holding down the point spot on the power play, there's less value in Green's skill set, especially at that price. Moving Green will allow the new GM more flexibility to change the roster (including potentially re-signing Grabovski or finding another way to address the second line center issue). There will be holes in the roster almost no matter what happens, the hole in the roster where Mike Green's shell used to play isn't among the ones that concern me.

D'oh: The only real way that trading Green makes sense is if you believe, as Mike Wise apparently does, that "something has to change," and that something cannot be Ovechkin or Backstrom, so by default it must be Mike Green. In other words, the trade makes sense because it "shakes up the room," or "changes the culture." Or maybe it's "addition by subtraction." The reality is that trading or buying out Mike Green is just plain old subtraction. The Caps would be minus a puck-moving top-four defenseman, a former Norris Trophy candidate, and a power play quarterback. Typically, these are the kind of pieces that Cup contenders (or wannabe Cup contenders) are looking to add, not subtract.

Let's not forget that Green's production mirrors his ice time, and particularly his power-play time. He "struggled" under coaches that didn't fully trust him with "number one minutes" (Glen Hanlon, Dale Hunter, and this year with Oates), and flourished under Boudreau when he played about twenty-five minutes a night. If Green has become a second-pairing power-play specialist, it's because that's how Hanlon, Hunter, and Oates deployed him. This suggests to me that perhaps coaching and roster decisions have created the illusion of a steep decline in play, when in reality this is what Green has always played like when he's given second-pairing minutes and told to play conservatively.

In this way, Green is yet another in a long line of offensive defensemen who are pilloried for what they aren't rather than celebrated for what they are. Often, frustration with these players' perceived shortcomings leads to them being traded or let go before their time, only to see them go on to great success elsewhere. Caps fans are intimately familiar with this phenomenon, having watched Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, and Sergei Gonchar leave the organization as they entered their primes and go on to win Stanley Cups elsewhere. This isn't just a Caps thing, either, as at various points, teams parted ways with Paul Coffey, Sergei Zubov, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, and Al MacInnis, only to watch them flourish well into their 30s. Unlike goal-scoring forwards, elite defensemen tend to age well. Given this history, is this really the appropriate time to cut ties with Green?

Rob: Or maybe the causation works the other way. Maybe Green had a perfect storm in his career when he was producing at historically elite rates, and Boudreau was smart enough to ride it. When he wasn't healthy and wasn't producing, there was no reason to live with his defensive deficiencies and so Hunter and Oates had to use him more judiciously. Green has had number-one minutes, especially on the power play, since Boudreau left, and he hasn't justified the coaches' usage with production.

Green has had number-one minutes, especially on the power play, since Boudreau left, and he hasn't justified the coaches' usage with production.

Offensive defensemen surely get more than their share of critique, but let's not mistake the argument here. This isn't running Larry Murphy out of town because of a misguided belief that his defensive lapses negate his offense. This isn't running Scott Stevens out because the owner doesn't want to pay him. Coffey and Zubov and Boyle and Blake and Pronger and MacInnis were traded from teams that weren't going to be able to contend with them to other teams that needed the skill set... and they generally brought back a substantial return.

The Caps need to change the makeup of the team. They need roster and salary cap flexibility. Moving Mike Green, and the substantial return he would command, addresses both needs. If trading a spare part was going to solve this team's problems then the problems would already be solved. But the problems are deeper than spare parts, and you need to give value to get value, so moving Mike Green makes sense for this team at this time.

Ultimately, the only way not trading Green makes sense is if you think the Caps are one power-play specialist away from Stanley Cup contention, or that Mike Green just needsone more summer to finally have it all click and become the dominant defenseman in all three zones that Caps fans were hoping for back in 2008. Neither is happening… so let's do something DC fans rarely see in late April and move on to the next round. You buy.