ARLINGTON, VA -
In his NHL career thus far, Mike Green has gone from an unknown to a cult hero to a symbol for the Capitals' failures to advance in the playoffs. He's been underused by one coach and empowered by another. He's gone from being a secret weapon to being one of the league's most well-known defensive players. He's been nominated for two Norris Trophies, and nearly won both times. He's turned in great regular-season performances and come up short in key playoff situations.
All this, and he's just 25 years old. Now, he's put himself in a unique position for such a young player: being a leader for an even younger group of teammates.
"I'm here to help those guys," he said today after practice. "Now it's my turn to step up and be a leader for the younger guys."
Green is hoping his recent experience being a follower will help him in his goal to become more of a leader. He said he remembers fondly when others led him a few years ago, and feels he can bring that same quality to the younger players on the team this season. But he also realizes that it may be a necessity for him to become more of a leader, due to the overall youth of the roster.
"You know, some of our younger [veterans] need to be leaders as well, and that includes me. That's our job," he said.
It's an interesting role for Green, considering his past. Green has always been talented, drawing comparisons to former great Paul Coffey for his uncanny ability to join the rush from the back. Bruce Boudreau realized this early on once he took over the Capitals' coaching job; it was Boudreau's arrival that kickstarted Green's surge back in the 2007-08 season. He had an outstanding playoff debut in 2008 against the Flyers, and followed that up by scoring 31 goals as a defensemen in 2008-09. Last year, he cut down on his penalties, improved his defense and sacrificed only a little of his outstanding scoring ability.
But even with all those strides, there's been a lingering feeling that Green is missing ... something. For all his offensive exploits, Green defense has been a work in progress. Many have questioned his maturity, stemming from his outgoing off-ice persona, which some worry detracts from his on-ice performance. Then, of course, there are the two straight poor postseason performances, which were summed up in two memorable moments: Green's benching in Game 7 in 2009 against the Penguins and his cross-checking penalty in Game 7 against the Canadiens last year that set up their first goal.
Perhaps Green's declaration is one he's using to try to motivate himself to new heights and shed all those doubters. Perhaps it's by necessity, considering the Capitals are counting on three defensemen younger than Green -- Jeff Schultz, John Carlson and Karl Alzner -- for big things this year. Either way, Green wants to provide those players something he maybe didn't have when he was younger -- someone to tell them to just play their game.
"I just tell those guys to play their game and stay composed," he said. "I think, at a young age, if you can stay with your composure, you'll be in a fresh state of mind and you can just play the game. I think if you're running around trying to do too much, it causes problems."
So how is Green doing in his goal at being a new leader? Boudreau, for one, is impressed. When asked about what types of things Green is doing to demonstrate more leadership, Boudreau pointed to his improved practice habits.
"You can tell how hard he's worked in practice, and to me, that's the biggest thing about leadership: show by example," he said. "He's come here, he's in tremendous shape, he's worked his read end off in the two scrimmages we've had, and he's been a leader in all the drills we've had in practice."
That's not to say Green is being quiet with his teammates. Alzner said today that it's Green's accessibility to talk that's been a huge help as he tries to transition to being a fixture with the Capitals.
"It's more his presence around here, how he has conversations with guys, talks to people, and is just open. That's a thing that, us young guys, we really look forward to," he said. "We come to the rink not just to sit in the corner by ourselves, but come in and have a conversation with Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin and those guys. That's what makes it easy for us."
That may seems tangential to the team's actual performance, but Alzner said it isn't. Though he said that Green hasn't yet really gotten into the kind of leadership where he's helping players with specific defensive schemes (it's too early for that anyway), Alzner said that Green's accessibility can and does make a difference for him on the ice.
"You get out there and you're not jittery and you're not nervous to give him a pass. I know in my first couple of years, I didn't want to give any of those [veterans guys] passes because of that reason, but now it's just like throwing the ball around with your dad or your buddy," he said. "It just comes naturally."
Boudreau, meanwhile, was emphatic that Green's lead-by-example mentality is, indeed, leadership.
"To me, if I'm out there as a defensemen and I'm looking at how hard he's working, that's leadership. It doesn't necessarily need words," he said. "If you think he's coming up and taking Karl [Alzner] and [John Carlson] under his arms and saying 'Kids, this is what I did back in the day,' no, [he's not]. [But] he's shown by example."
There exists a third possible motivating factor for Green's desire to be a leader: his own failures. As mentioned earlier, for all of Green's talent, he's come up short in many key situations. There was one moment, during Green's discussion about the need for the young defensemen to play their games, where that past made an appearance. As Green finished his thought, his voice dipped slightly, almost as if he had an admission he wanted to get out quickly. That admission?
"I know that from my past."
Maybe he was talking about his struggles early in his career, before Boudreau arrived. Maybe he was talking about his playoff failures. Either way, he's clearly hoping he can impart some wisdom from his whirlwind NHL experience; and I mean both his successes and his failures.