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Mike Green's Slide and What's Behind It

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A look at how the Caps are failing to get the most out of their third defensive pair

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat - having a defenseman like Mike Green (or, more accurately, having Mike Green) in the third pairing is an absolute luxury, an embarrassment of riches and depth for an NHL blueline. Of course, one could convincingly argue that Green should be in the top-four over one or more of that group's current occupants - over the past three seasons Green has performed at a top-pair level across-the-board with the exception of Usage-Adjusted Corsi-For rate, where he's comfortably been delivering like a second-pair rearguard (via Own The Puck):

Green HERO

But putting aside the matter of Green's slot on the team's depth chart, there's another related issue that has gone from little more than a matter of personal preference to potentially problematic - Green's partner and how he has impacted Green's overall effectiveness.

Let's take a look at Green's season-to-date in terms of his five-on-five Corsi-For percentage, smoothed out a bit by using a ten-game rolling CF%. What you see below, then, is the percentage of shot attempts taken by the Caps while Green was on the ice at fives over the previous ten games (solid red/blue line), his year-to-date CF% (solid black line) and the team's rolling ten-game CF% (dotted red line):

Green Rolling CF%

For the first twenty-three or so games into his season, Green was outperforming his teammates in those rolling ten-game segments, though the gap was narrowing. Then he hit a slide where he lagged behind them for a stretch, briefly was above-water again in that game 35-40 range, but has been back on the wrong side of break-even since. (Again, these are rolling ten-game segments, so good or bad games here or there don't really stand out.)

So what happened? Let's take another look at the chart, this time, with a bit more color:

Green CF% 2

If you guessed that the color-coding represents Green's defensive partner, give yourself a pat on the back - green (lower-case "G") is Nate Schmidt, blue is Jack Hillen. Green and Schmidt started off like a house afire and came back to earth a bit, but when the pair was first split up, Green was still at a CF% of around 55% and a strong Relative CF% (that is, how he compared to teammates) of 5.6 per war-on-ice; since then, with 20 of 22 starts alongside Hillen, he's below 50% and, more importantly, has a negative Relative CF% (-3.5%).

Obviously those numbers lack some context regarding deployments, but the contextual differences are relatively insignificant (and, if anything, would widen the actual gap between Schmidt and Hillen). To put a finer point on this, here's Green with-you/without you (WOWY) stats, via Hockey Analysis (click to enlarge):

Green WOWY

What that says is that the Caps have gotten a much higher percentage of shot attempts, taken shots at a higher rate and allowed them at a much lower rate with Green and Schmidt on the ice than with Green and Hillen out there, and that Green is better with Schmidt than without him, but much worse with Hillen than without him (and lest you think that's just a this-year thing, it's not).

But what about those goal rates and percentages? True enough, the Caps have scored a higher percentage of goals with Green-Hillen than Green-Schmidt... but that's largely due to factors outside of the respective blueliners' control, namely goaltending (yes, SCB's happen, but they're not as common as you think). The Caps have had a higher percentage of scoring chances and have gotten them at a higher rate while allowing them less frequently with Schmidt on the ice at five-a-side than with Hillen:

SC%

You get the point - Schmidt good, Hillen bad. Unfortunately for the Caps, of course, Nate Schmidt has been out of commission since suffering a broken shoulder blade on January 11 down in Hershey. Fortunately, though, Bears' head coach Troy Mann sounds optimistic that Schmidt could return on the sooner-rather-than-later side of the initial 6-8 week recovery estimate, which would make Schmidt available around the end of February... right before the NHL trade deadline.

So there are questions. Obviously the Caps have other, bigger needs as they look to ready their roster for the stretch run and beyond, and "depth defenseman" isn't nearly as sexy as "second-line center" or "top-six wing." Further, fretting about what amounts to the team's eighth defenseman (with Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov on the shelf) is one of those nice problems to have, especially given how much of the last few years have been spent worrying about a fourth. But if the Caps want to get the most out of one of their most talented players in Mike Green, they're likely going to have to do better than pairing him with Jack Hillen. Can Schmidt return to provide that boost? Even if he does, is there any reason to believe that Trotz will allow him to do so after he didn't for the better part of a month? Add this to GM Brian MacLellan's endless list of concerns...