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Options for Mike Green's Future

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With the 28-year-old a year away from unrestricted free agency, the Capitals face an extremely important decision.

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

As soon as one free agency cycle dies down, the hockey world looks to the next one, which figures to be an important one for the Capitals.

2014-15

2015-16

NHL forwards signed

12

6

NHL defensemen signed

8

5

NHL goalies signed

2

1

Cap room

~$1.1m

~$27m (assuming a $75m cap)

Notable UFAs

Mike Green, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward

Notable RFAs

Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson

With seven players hitting unrestricted free agency and another three restricted, the team will have plenty of opportunity to reshape its roster.

That brings us to Mike Green, a UFA in 2015.

Green has been a bit of a divisive force over the years. The antithesis of the old-school tough-as-nails, defense-first, zero-risk defenseman, he's provided the Capitals with plenty of value over the years — four defenseman goal-scoring titles (including a historic 2008-09), two Norris Trophy nominations, and the coach's top option at even-strength in every season but one since his breakout year in 2007-08 — as well as some boneheaded mistakes and injury issues.

While the organization says it wants to keep him for now, in a few months time they'll have to make a tough choice: whether to re-sign Green at a hefty cap hit, trade him, or keep him through the playoffs and let him walk as a free agent.

Let's analyze each of those options in turn.

(Just a note: I'll be focusing mainly on 5-on-5 play. Presumably, Matt Niskanen or John Carlson could replace Green on the power play — which I imagine won't change much — without much of a drop-off. I'll call the penalty kill a wash; Nashville has bounced between top-10 and bottom-six, so it's tough to get a read on how good the penalty kill will be in 2014-15. As it is, Green doesn't play much on the PK, but in the little time has has, he's beaten the team consistently.)

Where does the team stand now?

It's probably first worth looking at how good the Capitals can expect to be with this roster.

Let's assume the losses of Mikhail Grabovski and Martin Erat, two of Washington's better possession forwards last season, will be mostly mitigated by full, healthy seasons from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich. It's a bit of a stretch, but it'll simplify the analysis — and as it is, neither Grabovski nor Erat played full seasons for the Caps, and if any young player can more than replace them, it's a longtime marquee prospect.

Teams can afford to trade high-end defensemen if they're really, really good (e.g. 2010 Chicago) or can replace the player more cheaply internally (e.g. 2010 Pittsburgh).

There was no question of Green's expendability two months ago. (That is, he was a core piece.) The Caps had just four clear-cut, reliable NHL defensemen: Green, Dmitry Orlov, Carlson, and Karl Alzner. After this latest spending spree, they're up to six (or, at least, five plus one who could be in the right situation). That doesn't mean the Caps are good enough to lose Green, but it does open the possibility of the organization having enough depth to construct a championship contender despite losing him.

("Big Four" refers to any time at least one of Green, Carlson, Alzner, or Orlov was on the ice. "Other" is when none of them were. "Orpik-PMD" is Orpik with a good puck-mover: Olli Maatta, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, or Kris Letang.)

The first thing to notice is where Washington lies on this chart. Last season, the Caps were outshot by around five attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, ranking 24th in the league. Considering the two teams behind them made the playoffs, one making it to the conference finals, it's not catastrophically bad, but it's not remotely close to the level of legitimate title contenders like the New York Rangers (+5.4, 8th overall), let alone perennial favorites like the Chicago Blackhawks (+11.6, 2nd) or the Los Angeles Kings (+14.7, 1st).

The Capitals likely got better with their free agent acquisitions and changes behind the bench, which should help improve that Corsi differential. Let's say the Caps' third pair (featuring Brooks Orpik and one of the right-handed puck-moving defenseman) comes in and replicates its Pittsburgh numbers, replacing the cringe-worthy "Other" pair's performance with a minus-three Corsi per 60 showing. That would improve the Caps' Corsi differential by a little over 100 events, to around -200, between 48% and 49%. That's still nowhere near good enough to compete for a title. Aside from PDO juggernauts 2009 Pittsburgh and 2011 Boston, the worst possession teams to make the Stanley Cup Final recently were around 53% Fenwick tied (2010 Philadelphia and 2014 Rangers, for example).

That's just roster improvement. The coaching change, at a minimum, should bring a modest Corsi improvement, too.

Perds_1_medium

Trotz has paid closer attention to analytics (specifically zone entries) over the past couple of years, and the results of that change (along with some free agent signings) show in the team's improved Fenwick percentage. Even ignoring 2013-14, Trotz's Predators were in the black by shots in three out of six seasons, which is not bad at all — especially for a budget team.

To look at this another way, the chart below includes a sample of players who switched between playing for Nashville (blue) one season and playing for another team (green) in another.

The green bubbles are south of the blue ones for four of the six players, which bears out again that Trotz isn't bad — meaning he's already got a leg up on Adam Oates. And if the recent improvement from the Predators is real, Trotz could make Washington into a pretty good team quite quickly — players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson excel at entering the offensive zone with possession, and could thrive in a system that prioritizes puck possession over puck position.

That said, it's possible Trotz isn't quite the difference-maker this last year showed, in which case the Capitals won't be able to separate themselves from the rest of the division, making a deep playoff run unlikely (at least, without spectacular goaltending).

Where Green fits in

Right now, the Capitals are no slam dunk to make the playoffs in a competitive division. After a few months, we'll have a better idea of how important Green is to this iteration of the Capitals. But looking back, it's clear that he's been very, very important.

Let's revisit the chart above:

Note now that Green is far off to the right. His pair was invariably far better at controlling the puck than anything else the Capitals were throwing out there — even pairs featuring Olympian John Carlson.

Niskanen also looks very strong. Merely replacing Green with Matt Niskanen, though, brings us back to square one — the top pair controlling possession, the second pair around team average, and the third pair left in the dust, albeit with a little extra cap room.

Green may not be as polished defensively as Carlson or even Niskanen, but he (along with partner Orlov) more than makes up for that with his ability to make plays with the puck, moving it up the ice under control — something Trotz and other coaches (and players) seem to emphasize a little more heavily nowadays.

(Note: The denominators in the percentages are number of defensive-zone touches, not zone exit attempts. The way to read this is Green made a defensive zone-clearing play on a little over 30% of his defensive-zone touches, not that he was only successful on 30% of his zone exit attempts.)

(Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, who is tracking entries and exits for every game in 2013-14. You can support his project here.)

In terms of raw totals, Green carried the puck out of the zone more than any Caps player save Mikhail Grabovski and Marcus Johansson, and passed the puck out 50% more than Carlson, who had the second-most pass exits (202 to 136). There's less data for individual zone entries, but unsurprisingly, Green easily bests the rest of the Caps blueline there, too, also posting the highest neutral zone score on the blueline. (The neutral zone score is expected Corsi% based purely on zone entries for and against and proportions of those entries that are controlled.)  He gets the puck up the ice quickly, and even though the advantages aren't huge on their own, they add up to a player who, given a competent partner, laps his teammates in shot differentialeven when controlling for competition faced.

That said, the Capitals do have three promising younger, cheaper defensemen (and that doesn't include Connor Carrick, who struggled quite a bit in his first pro season and is likely not a realistic replacement - at least not yet). Orlov and Nate Schmidt had very promising seasons, but it remains to be seen how good they'll look when they don't spend half their ice time paired with Green, whose presence might have resulted in a little extra time and space for them to make plays.

Carlson is a more interesting case. He has all the tools to be a Norris-caliber defenseman, but lags behind Green both by entries and exits and in possession. Competition faced and zone starts explain a small part of the picture. A bigger part might be coaching: Having spent time under three different coaches with different system priorities, his instinctive play may not be the one that maximizes puck possession for his team. For example, he seemed a little too willing to chip the puck out of the zone, especially earlier in the year. That's what Adam Oates' system demanded, but in the long run, it's not what leads to success for a less-than-awesome puck-retrieval team.

On that note, the Caps' new head coach could help Carlson maximize his skillset. Trotz said he's worked with his D on not surrendering possession on entries unnecessarily; if he chooses to keep track of how his team exits the zone, he could well come to the same idea for zone exits (if he hasn't already). Carlson has room to improve — he shouldn't be lagging behind Karl Alzner in terms of successful exits and exits with control — and depending on how much he does, he could get near Green's level.

If he can improve and if Orlov and Schmidt can keep improving, doing what they did with Green without him, that could be enough to replace Green — and would save the team over $5 million in cap room in 2014-15, plus a more modest amount in years beyond. (Schmidt and Orlov are both restricted free agents in 2015, so they'll likely take a little more cap space — but not quite as much as Green will likely command.) It's by no means a sure thing, though.

Option 1: Re-sign

What would it cost to extend Green? There are two contracts that could be instructive here.

1) Kris Letang: 8 years, $58 million. Letang's extension kicks in for 2014-15, carrying a $7.25 million cap hit and salary each season. He signed the extension coming off a Norris Trophy nomination (finishing 3rd, but far closer to 1st and 2nd than to 4th). He's 27.

2) Matt Niskanen: 7 years, $40.25 million. Niskanen's contract kicks in for 2014-15, too, and also carries identical cap hits and salaries each year: $5.75 million.

Contract-2 season

Contract-1 season

Contract season*

Name

Age

G-A-P

TOI/G

Age

G-A-P

TOI/G

Age

G-A-P

TOI/G

Letang

23

8-42-50

24:02

24

10-32-42

24:50

25**

5-33-38

25:38

Niskanen

25

4-17-21

17:56

26**

4-10-14

20:21

27

10-36-46

21:18

Green

27**

12-14-26

24:51

28

9-29-38

22:44

29

?

?

*Refers to contract signing (i.e. 2012-13 for Letang, because he signed the extension in July 2013)

**Lockout-shortened season

Letang's performance leading up to his extension blows out Niskanen's pre-contract numbers. Green, too, is outmatched, though by not quite as much. Letang is probably the ceiling here and Niskanen the basement. A long-term Green contract could take him to 37 or 38 — extra older years that Letang and Niskanen's deals, which end when they are 34, do not have — and those 35+ years could bring his cap hit into the $6-6.5 million range (or even lower, if he takes a hometown discount or has an underwhelming 2014-15). On the other hand, the NHL's anticipated spike in revenue thanks to the Rogers TV deal could raise Green's cap hit closer to $7m.

Is that fair? His salary for 2014-15 ranks 14th among D, and although accounting for the RFA discount adds another name or two, a $6+ million salary puts him firmly in good-not-elite No. 1 defenseman territory. Seven million would leave him tied for 8th with four other players.

That's a fine contract for the player Green is now, but might not be in five years — and again, there's the possibility that Orlov, Schmidt, and the other young Caps D in the pipeline develop enough to collectively replace him.

Option 2: Trade

Peerless already went into this in great depth. It looks unlikely that the Caps can get what they need if Green is the sole piece moving the other way — and, as we've seen, Green is a hefty price to pay for depth pieces, especially if the organization thinks it can re-sign him long-term at a discounted price.

For a moment, though, consider the possibility. What caliber of player is needed to replace Green right now?

At a simple level, we can look at Green's +4.7% Corsi Rel, and see which forwards have topped that mark recently. In 2013-14, 31 forwards topped 4.7, with 37, 36, and 36 in the three previous season, respectively. It's not a perfect comparison — but the point to take away is the Caps need to make sure they're finding players who can thrive in their role on this team.

While right now, it's hard to see any good bet to thrive on the Caps' second line (minus legitimately high-end first-liners), it's possible Evgeny Kuznetsov lives up to his promise and singlehandedly makes the Capitals' second line a good situation (a la Alexander Semin post-Fedorov). That said, wait too long, and Green's value may decrease — he does only have one year left on his contract, after all.

It looks unlikely that the Caps can get what they need if Green is the sole piece moving the other way — and, as we've seen, Green is a hefty price to pay for depth pieces.

Option 3: Letting him walk

The benefit here is getting him for the final ~20 games of the season and the playoffs without having to commit a lot of money and years afterward. The downside is losing a great player without so much as a moderately valuable pick or prospect. If the Caps really value the 2015 playoff run above the ones in 2016 and beyond (in the near future), and also trust that they'll have cheaper, viable replacements in free agency or in the pipeline, then this path makes sense.

For the time being, there are some nice, potentially undervalued difference-makers heading for free agency in 2015 — including Cody Franson, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Jeff Petry, and Andrej Sekera on the blueline, and Clarke MacArthur up front — but over the next few months, many will likely be re-signed. There's also no guarantee any of those players comes to Washington on a discount, because, for better or for worse, the team no longer seems like it's perceived as a "good situation" (unlike, say, Tampa Bay).

But letting Green walk still opens up a significant amount of cap room, and if the Caps can't net a difference-maker, they could still bolster their depth.

* * *

A decision on a talented, important player like Green isn't easy, but in some ways, it's one of those "good problems" to have — an indicator that there is a lot of promising talent in the organization. At the end of the day, though, deciding whether they can replace Mike Green with internal options and $6-plus million in cap room is a risky proposition, either way. Maybe the replacement plan doesn't work out. Or maybe you re-sign him and he doesn't perform at the same level. With Alex Ovechkin soon to be on the wrong side of 30, and the team mired in mediocrity, it has to get these big decisions right to keep progressing toward a Stanley Cup.

Among many storylines in Washington's 2014-15 season, this will be a crucial one to watch.