February 09, 2009
"As is the situation with all Norris candidates this season, Green comes with issues. The biggest is that he is not the best player in his own zone. His case is largely offensive." - The Puck Stops Here, "Norris Trophy Race"
"His case is largely offensive" is probably what any fan of Scott Stevens or Zdeno Chara are thinking when a player like Mike Green of the Washington Capitals becomes the Norris Trophy flavor of the moment. (It was nice getting to know you, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, but the media's just not that into you anymore.)
The Norris has always been a thorn in the paw of purists because of how much emphasis it places on offense from defensemen. In fairness, not all of the scoring defensemen to the win the award are as questionable as Paul "Fourth Forward" Coffey; Nicklas Lidstrom and Ray Bourque were obviously total package players. And, thank the Hockey Gods, Phil Housley never took one home.
Green, at this point in his career, is not a total package player. The offense far outweighs what fans would indentify as quality defense. The question of his candidacy becomes one of philosophy: Should the league's "best" defenseman win the Norris primarily because of his offense?
More to the point: Can the best defense actually be ... offense?
Green's an interesting case study. He's improved tremendously in his own end since his rookie season, which is more an indictment of his newbie neglect than his ascendancy to defensive prominence. His speed still allows him to cover up mistakes for which other pinching D-men would pay dearly.
Sports Illustrated's Sarah Kwak, in a piece about Green's Norris candidacy, explains his defensive challenges:
Sure, there is merit in questioning his defensive game. His lapses were exposed by the L.A. Kings' rushing attack as they beat the Caps, 5-4, on Thursday night. Against New Jersey on Tuesday, Washington gave up a short-handed goal partly because Green and Alexander Semin pushed forward and gave the Devils' Jamie Langenbrunner enough open ice to break away. But if it weren't for Green's willingness to take risks and sneak into open areas, he wouldn't have scored that game's first goal.
That last point could be the salient one in the debate about offensive defensemen winning the Norris: Is the best defense actually a good offense?
In his coverage of Green, Mirtle linked over to the invaluable Behind The Net stats site and found an interesting figure: in 5-on-5 hockey, Green is on the ice for just 1.78 goals every 60 minutes. Combine that with a plus-21, and statistically you might think you have the love child of Paul Coffey and Scott Stevens.
But in 5-on-5 hockey, the Capitals play as aggressive an offensive game as any team in the League. Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom ... they push the puck and pin opponents in their own zones. Green's the same kind of player in the sense that when he's on the ice, he's not having to stop opponents' chances because he's creating so many of his own.
This quote from the SI piece sums up what is, inherently, Green's defense:
"One of the things that Boudreau harps on is that the best position defensively is going to be the best position offensively," says Capitals forward David Steckel. "Not that [Green] didn't care about defense, but I think he's concentrated more to the point where he knows where to put his body, where he can get up the rush and still get back."
Green is a fantastic player, and a great interview to boot. He's leading the League for defensemen with 46 points, and should finish on top of those standings barring injury; he's one of the deadliest point men on the power play in hockey with 14 goals; he's logging huge minutes of ice time; and he's one of the single most exciting skaters in the NHL. I've long compared him to a raw-talent version of Scott Niedermayer, and in my eyes he's the second best player on the Capitals.
What his Norris candidacy comes down to is this: Can you make the argument that a player like Green is just as good defensively as Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins by controlling the puck, keeping it out of his own end and playing offense?
At this point, the Norris field is rather static: Chara, Lidstrom, Green, Weber, Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks, Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens, Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks. Chara would still appear to be the favorite, both as a "lifetime achievement" award, as a symbol of the Bruins' incredible season on defense and because ... well, who doesn't want to see him in a tux. Hopefully with tails.
One name to keep in mind, going forward: Dennis Wideman of the Boston Bruins. He's a plus-31, he's sixth in scoring for defensemen and his "goals against while on the ice per 60 minutes" number is actually better than Green's (1.69).
I've heard Wideman's name mentioned much more often lately, so expect the next wave of media adoration to crash on him. That said, Chara and Wideman (if he gets the spotlight) probably can't coexist in the Norris race without cancelling each other out.
Which could open the door for a Western Conference contender. Or, perhaps, for Mike Green.