One of the more hotly debated questions in the NHL, now that the regular season has come to an end, is who should be this year’s Norris Trophy winner, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals or Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators.
Strong cases are being made for each of these fine defensemen, but that is not the subject of this entry. The Norris debate got us to thinking about offensive defensemen in general and goal scorers in particular. High volume goal scorers at the position are rare; it just is not a position that lends itself to high goal totals. However, there is a Washington Capitals theme to be explored here.
In the history of the NHL, nine defensemen have reached the 30-goal total at least once in their careers. Three did it more than once, the incomparable Bobby Orr doing it five times over a six-year period (1969-70 through 1974-75) for the Boston Bruins, missing out on a six-year run by a single goal when he potted 29 goals in 1972-73.
Boston has three defensemen on this list (Orr, Ray Bourque, and Dit Clapper). The Caps are the only other team with more than one defenseman on the list. Kevin Hatcher recorded 34 goals in 1992-1993, and Mike Green had 31 goals in 2008-2009.
Going into the 1992-93 season, Hatcher had a solid career with the Caps after being taken with the 17th overall pick in the 1984 Entry Draft (trivia side note… Hatcher was the ninth defenseman taken in the 1984 draft; two of the defensemen drafted ahead of him – Al Iafrate (fourth overall by Toronto) and Sylvain Cote (11th overall by Hartford) – would be teammates of Hatcher with the Caps in 1992-93). In eight seasons leading up to the 1992-93 campaign, Hatcher had 99 goals in 530 games with a high of 24 goals in 1990-91. He averaged roughly 15 goals per 82 games over that stretch, a good, but not extraordinary output for a defenseman.
The start to Hatcher’s 1992-93 season was unspectacular, which is to say “average” by his standards in terms of goal-scoring. He potted one in the Caps’ season opener, the game-winning goal in a 6-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but by the end of November he had five goals in 26 games, a 16-goal pace per 82 games.
Then came December. Hatcher had a pair of goals, including the game-winner, in an 8-4 win over the New York Rangers at Capital Centre to start the month. That touched off a 22-game stretch over which hatcher scored 15 goals, including a hat trick in a 5-4 win over the Rangers in New York on January 13, 1993. It was the first hat trick by a defenseman in Capitals history.
Thereafter, Hatcher’s goal scoring was a streaky affair. He suffered a five-game streak without a goal, then had four goals in five games to follow that up. Another five-game goalless streak would be followed by a six-goals-in-eight-games run. He wrapped up the regular season with a four-game streak without a goal followed by four goals in his last eight contests, the last of which was a goal in the season finale against, naturally, the Rangers in a 4-2 win.
Hatcher was particularly hard on the Rangers in 1992-93, recording six of his 34 goals against the Blueshirts. Despite that production against the Rangers, he spread things around rather evenly, recording at least one goal against 17 of 23 opponents he faced. And, he split those 34 goals down the middle at home and on the road, 17 goals apiece. Hatcher had six game-winning goals in 1992-93, tied for tenth-most in league history for a defenseman, a total that was also split down the middle with three at home and three on the road. Hatcher’s 34 goals in 1992-93 remains a team record for goals by a Capitals defenseman in a single season.
Those 34 goals scored by Hatcher in 1992-93 would stand as the last time an NHL defenseman posted at least 30 goals in a season until the 2008-09 season. Mike Green was entering his fourth season with the Caps after being taken with the 29th overall pick of the 2004 Entry Draft. Green, who was viewed as a predominantly offensive defenseman, nevertheless did not post eye-popping goal scoring numbers either as an amateur (37 goals in 265 games in Canadian junior hockey), in the minors (12 goals in 68 games over two seasons with Hershey in the AHL), or in his first two seasons with the Caps (three goals in 92 games).
In his third season with Washington, though, Green gave hints at what was to come. He posted 18 goals in 82 games in 2007-08. Only two Capitals defensemen in team history posted more goals at age 22 or younger, Scott Stevens with 21 goals in 1984-85 at age 20 and Robert Picard with 21 goals in 1978-79 at age 21.
It was prelude to a career year in goals for Green. Like Hatcher before him, Green started the 2009-10 season hot, opening the season with two goals in a 7-4 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers and posting four goals in his first five games. And then, again like Hatcher before him, he went cold, going eight straight games without lighting the red light.
Green continued the off-an-on goal scoring over his next 22 games, posting eight goals to bring his season total to 12 in his first 35 games, putting him on a pace to challenge the 30-goal mark for the full season.
In his 36th game of the season, Green scored the game’s first goal in what would be a 3-2 overtime loss in Boston to the Bruins on January 27, 2009. He followed that up with a goal in a 4-2 win over Detroit on January 31st. Next was a game featuring a goal and three assists in a 7-4 win over Ottawa. The streak continued with goals against New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Florida (two goals).
Green took his six-game goal scoring streak to Madison Square Garden on February 11th with a chance to tie the record for consecutive games with goals by a defenseman, set by Boston’s Mike O’Connell in 1983-84. There was little suspense, Green scoring the record-tying goal in the second period in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Rangers. He had a chance to take the record for himself when the Caps visited the Tampa Bay Lightning on Valentine’s Day. With the Caps already holding a 3-0 lead in the second period, Green ended whatever uncertainty there was about his setting the record, following up his own shot with a blast from between the hash marks past goalie Karri Ramo for the record eighth straight game with a goal.
The streak gave Green 22 goals in 43 games, a pace that was unsustainable. He went dry, posting only one goal in his next 13 games before finishing strong with eight goals in his last 12 regular season games to finish with 31 goals in 68 games overall. Green’s production skewed a bit to the home side, with 17 of his 31 total goals, 12 of his 18 power play goals, and three of his four game-winning goals scored on home ice. His 18 power play goals in the 2008-09 season remains a club record for power play goals scored by a Caps defenseman in a single season.
The Capitals have a long tradition of top notch defensemen. What might get lost from time to time in remembering that history is just how “top notch” their offensive defensemen have been. In this instance it is quite amazing that the Capitals have the only two defensemen in the last 31 years to finish the regular season with at least 30 goals in Kevin Hatcher and Mike Green.