27 January, 17:26

NHL 1-on-1: Andy Greene, full-time crunch time

By David Kerans
WASHINGTON (VR)— “NJ Devils will choose between keeping Cory Murphy or Andy Greene” sang a September 2009 headline.

Then 26 years old, smallish, puck-moving defenseman Andy Greene's career hung by the thread of a training camp duel between himself and a player whom he resembled, the 5'10, 180 lb., 31 year-old Murphy. Then-coach Jacques Lemaire was taking over for Brent Sutter, who had never been especially high on Greene, letting him into the lineup in 2007 only when injuries forced his hand. Like Sutter, Lemaire was slow to come around to Greene. But he preferred him over Cory Murphy by the third game of the 2009 season, and soon began giving Greene big minutes after two defensemen went down with injuries.

Shocking Jacques

Even if the hockey authorities doubted him, Greene believed in himself, and he made the most of his opportunity. Already by December, Lemaire was enthralled, and was admitting he had badly underestimated Greene:

"I always feel that he's going to slow down at a time and he never does. He plays well every night and does the same thing. It doesn't matter what team we play against. He's good. He makes his early pass when he has to. He controls it when he has to.

"I never thought he could play this way. Every move he makes you can see he has talent…. Right now, I'd say he is (an All-Star), playing the way he is playing."

Shoulders Below the Boards

As 2009-10 wore on, opposing teams took notice of Greene, and one coach described him as “surprisingly slippery”. Greene's smooth skating and maneuverability whisk him through or carry him away from challenges, as is evident to anyone who watches him for a while. But you have to get close to the ice and pay close attention to appreciate one dimension of Greene's skating that makes him so “surprisingly slippery”: Andy Greene routinely gets lower through challenges than do most NHLers, especially when moving along the boards. Indeed, he plays with his shoulders below the boards:

Greene gets low

Greene’s remarkably low center of gravity       Photo credit: © ELSA/AFP


Greene slippery

Slippery indeed: scooting under Corey Perry and drawing a trip   Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett/AFP

Greene has not developed a big shot, and does not put up hatsful of points (his highest season total was 37 in 2009-10, a pace he is keeping again this year). But he has been a deserving mainstay on NJ’s blueline for five years. Nevertheless, when GM Lou Lamoriello signed him to a four year, $12 million deal in the summer of 2011, many among the Devils faithful lamented it: “Greene is overpaid, no doubt about it” blared The Devils Den blog.

The dismay reflected fans’ disorientation at the club having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2011 for the first time in 15 years. Greene’s numbers had slumped in that season (whose hadn’t?), and the fans were desperate for Lamoriello to reload. As regards Greene, Lamoriello knew better, as Greene has gone on to prove.

Full-Time Crunch Time
When new NJ coach Peter DeBoer arrived in the summer of 2011, he had little doubt of Greene's value. He has acclaimed Andy many times since then as being his best defenseman, and his deployment of Greene bears this out. DeBoer relies very heavily on Greene in crunch situations on both offense and defense. He is serving on NJ's power play 48% of the time, and has been on the ice for 64% of NJ’s shorthanded time this year. Adding these two numbers nets Greene a score of 112 on our crude crunch-time meter.

A crunch-time score of 112 is very high. An anecdotal check on top-name defensemen around the league confirms that Greene is in elite company here (data through January 26):

119 Dion Phaneuf, TOR (64% PP time, 55% shorthanded)

118 Ryan Suter, MIN (71 and 47)

116 Zdeno Chara, BOS (57 and 59)

115 Shea Weber, NSH (61 and 54)

115 Andrei Markov, MTL (72 and 43)

112 Andy Greene

110 Roman Josi, NSH (59 and 51)

110 Duncan Keith, CHI (60 and 48)

110 Ryan McDonagh, NYR (53 and 57)

108 Alex Pietrangelo, STL (53 and 55)

Also-rans include:
105 Cam Fowler, ANA (56 and 49)

105 Drew Doughty, LA (63 and 42)

105 Erik Karlsson, OTT (76 and 29)

104 Byfuglien, WIN (64 and 40)

96 Alex Goligoski, DAL (50 and 46)

93 P.K.Subban, MTL (80 and 13)

Notes:

1) The winner, of course, had he not returned to Russia, would be KOVY, whose mark last season was 123 (94 and 29). It would be difficult to classify KOVY as a defenseman, we concede, but he did play the point on the PP...

2) We are aware that Andrew MacDonald of NYI would score 115 on this metric (60 and 55). But for reasons we need not elaborate here, we cannot include MacDonald in this list.

A Career Year

Never has NJ gotten as much out of Greene as they are getting this year. He is logging 24.3 minutes per game, up from 22.6 last season.

He has attempted 144 shots this year (on net or missed, not including blocked), vs. just 99 last year (in 5 fewer games), and his average shooting distance is a bit closer (49 feet this season, vs. 51 last). Most important, his shooting percentage is up: he is scoring on 4.9% of his attempts, vs. 4% last season.

Naturally, therefore, Greene’s point production is up sharply. His P1/60 (goals and primary assists per 60 minutes played) in 5-on-5 play is 0.33, more than double last year's 0.15.

And Greene is moving play in NJ’s direction, despite being paired against difficult enemy competition. His 5-on-5 close score Corsi last year was 55 (meaning NJ out-attempted opponents by 55-45 when Greene was playing), a very good number, albeit 1 below NJ. This year he is up 57, which is especially strong because it is +4 over NJ’s team average.

What’s with the Snub?

As well as he's played, as highly as his coach and his peers think of him, and as good as his numbers may be, Andy Greene still flies under the radar. The selection committee for the US Ice Hockey Olympic Team left Greene off the roster for Sochi, despite his obvious suitability for play on the larger European ice surface (the Olympics will be played in rinks of European dimensions, 100 feet wide, as compared to the North American standard of 85 feet).

Quiet players often do not get the recognition they deserve. Sensing that Greene has played a quiet style since his early years in hockey, we began our conversation with a topic that must have been on his mind very often throughout his career: does a player have to score, hit, or fight to get noticed?

Greene launches Lewis

Greene gets low and launches Trevor Lewis (Cup Final 2012)        Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett/ AFP

NHL 1-on-1: Andy Greene

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Kerans: Andy, you’ve been around for a little bit of a while, and I think appraisal of hockey players has changed over time, it’s become more sophisticated. You remember, I think, the old days when if you weren’t intimidating, if you weren’t scoring, you weren’t going to get as noticed. Times have changed, slowly. I think you’ve seen that, and maybe benefitted from it. But when you were growing up, was it an issue for you, that coaches or peers around you expected players to make an impact physically and with scoring, and maybe you wouldn’t get appreciated for everything else?

Greene: Ah, yeah, it’s a little different. Like you said, the dynamics of the game have changed, and there are a lot more roles, defined roles. Obviously there are still guys who are paid to score, and do all that. Then there are a lot of guys who are stay-at-home defensemen, and checking line forwards, and not necessarily what they do shows up on the score sheet every night.

Kerans: But did you feel pressured to be doing more hitting, more scoring, just to get noticed when you were trying to make an impact, when you were young?

Greene: Well, no, not necessarily. You still just try to play your game. You don’t try to be a player you’re not, and do things that are out of character and are not normal for you. Obviously, growing up and trying to go to the next level, there are times when you want to do something to get noticed, but at the same time…

Greene rocks Neal

He can hit; here getting all of James Neal (December 31, 2013) Photo credit: © Paul Bereswill/AFP

Kerans: Did you have a lot of choices other than Miami of Ohio when you went there? {Greene played four years at Miami of Ohio, finishing as team captain in 2005-06}.

Greene: I had a few, a couple of schools in Michigan, and a couple of schools out West. At the time Miami was just the best fit for me personally. It was the best decision I could have made on colleges, and I really enjoyed my time and loved it there.

Greene Miami

Carrying the breakout for Miami as a senior          Photo credit: © Miami University Athletics

Kerans: In 2008 say, 2009, 2010 you were playing with New Jersey but weren’t getting as much ice time or even games—you were sometimes scratched. What were you doing to improve in that period? Were you just relying on your instincts?

Greene: Ah, you do a little bit of both. It’s tough, because a lot of times when guys get to the NHL and they get a healthy scratch, it’s usually the first time in their career. At the same time, now, looking back on it, it’s easy to say you learned from it. You just put your head down and work as hard as you can, and you know, give ‘em a reason to make you play.

Kerans: You can’t be sure it’s going to work out, you just do your best?

Greene: Yeah, exactly. You’re just hoping you have no regrets on it, and do the best you can.

Kerans: You were part of a train wreck in 2010 when the team was scoring at a stone age rate. I think it was the fifth lowest scoring rate through the first half of the season in NHL history {indeed it was, and no team had scored at a lower rate since the 1930s}. Then all of a sudden everything just lifted off like a rocket. I think Lemaire would have to get some credit for that {Jacques Lemaire returned to NJ shortly before the halfway point of the season}. Do you have your own ideas on what happened? Was it partly psychological? Maybe he did a lot himself?

Greene: Yeah, it was a tough first half there. When things are going well or badly, things tend to snowball, like I said, whether it’s good or bad. At that point, obviously, we weren’t doing too well. He came in and basically just simplified everything. He basically had to rebuild everyone’s confidence, and everyone had to kind of start from scratch in the middle of the season, which is a tough thing to do. And we did a great job of rebounding.

Kerans: You say Lemaire simplified things, but sometimes people have told me that he is very detail oriented. So (for you) it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of detail. Did he give you at any time in your career a lot of personal attention, work with you personally?

Greene: Yeah! Like you said, he is very detailed. But at the same time, he’s very detailed in a simplified way. It’s just the simple things. “Making one play, that’s all we’re going to try to do here. We don’t care what’s going to happen, we are going to try to make this play the whole game, and then we’ll go from there.” And, you know he was big. He was big time the first time he was here. He was big for my career. You know even going into that season {meaning 2009-10, I believe} I was still kind of on the fence there, and I had a great year, and he was a big part of that.

Kerans: If you sit down these days and plan how to make yourself a better player, you have more tools available than you would have a number of years back. For instance, there are fitness measurements, like your VO2 max, that you know better than I; there are things like power skating coaches, and there are these extra statistics, statistics which tell you how you are doing at “puck exit zone possession”, you name it, there are a lot. {see, e.g.} Do you make use of power skating coaches, extra stats—are you aware of that stuff? Are you making use of those fitness measurements?

Greene: Yeah, the fitness stuff and the skating stuff, yes. I don’t pay too much attention to the extra statistics, the other ones that are kind of advanced.

Kerans: It could just be a distraction?

Greene: Yeah, you just go out there and play, you know. Some of the statistics show your game, but some of the time they don’t show how you are playing. I don’t try to pay much attention to that. I watch a lot of video, I watch my shifts after every game, and I try to just go over what went well in the game, what didn’t go well, and what I can improve on.

Kerans: Last couple here. It’s difficult for observers to explain how consistently the Devils limit other teams’ opportunities. I spoke with Lindy Ruff, the Dallas coach, after that game {a 1-0 NJ win on January 9, 2014}, and he was shaking his head. He said “It’s like trying to go through a barbed wire fence with a wool jacket on.” He was impressed. He’s been impressed before—he coached Buffalo and faced you many times. And when observers try to figure out the Devils and how they don’t give up many shots, it must be a combination of things. There are players here who can keep the puck under control. There is good board play. There is attention to detail. There must be maybe extra training of this time on cycling and puck possession. How would you assess this?

Greene: Yeah, I definitely think it’s something we pride ourselves on. In the offensive zone, not throwing pucks away, not making the risky play. If the play is there, we make it, but if not, we try to wear teams down. We’ve got some big forwards here, this year especially {NJ added Jagr and Clowe this year, for example}. You know they can wear on (opponents’) D. We don’t have the most offensively gifted team, and we have to make sure we pay attention to our systems and work hard as a group.

Kerans: You played for the United States in the World Championship {in 2010}. Anything sort of memorable, playing for your country? Any sensations, or distractions, or challenge you had? Did you just think “It’s gonna be another game, just let me play some hockey.” Any thoughts you have on playing for the national team?

Greene: No, you know, obviously it’s always an honor, and a lot of fun to represent your country, to be able to go to those types of things. In terms of extra pressure, no, I think you just go about the game and try to play the best you can and leave it out there. You can’t really sit there and worry about things out of your control. Just go out there and play, and let things happen.

Kerans: If you had to guess, who would win the Olympics--other than the US? It’s going to depend on how the puck bounces, I understand, but do you have a guess?

Greene: Uh…

Kerans: It would be a guess, right?

Greene: Yeah, I mean your guess is as good as mine. You know, there’s probably three or four teams there. Obviously the US, Canada, Russia, and Sweden. Those are all four top teams, and it’s just who stays healthy, who has the right bounces, and who gets hot at the right time.

Kerans: I have to ask you as a Voice of Russia reporter: You played with Kovalchuk a long time. Was he an interactive teammate a lot, or sometimes a little bit distant, or chatty? What do you remember?

Greene and KOVY

Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett/AFP

Greene: Uh, no, he was great. Actually he sat right where you’re sitting, we sat next to each other for a few years there. Great teammate, loved to hang out, and was very…

Kerans: What’s this rap about him not being a defensive player? The press makes exaggerations about all kinds of issues, not just individual players, but (NJ forward Peter) Sykora once came on (in early 2012) and said “I don’t know what people are talking about, he’s playing incredible hockey.”

Greene: Yeah, I don’t know. {laughing} You’ll have to ask your fellow reporter friends there.

Kerans: I’m not going to do that… Did you get the sense, when you’ve got the puck, in your end, you give it to him, and he had such a first step, the puck was coming out once you got it on his stick…

Greene: Yeah, exactly!

Kerans: And that’s helps the defense, if you get the puck out.

Greene: Yeah. Obviously, he was a guy who liked to make plays, and sometimes, whether those plays worked out or not it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. He was trying to make plays…

Kerans: It’s not like you were worried giving him the puck in the defensive zone.

Greene: No, no, not at all. Coming around the net, seeing him there, I was totally fine giving it to him, and obviously, usually he always made the right play.

Kerans: Well maybe there will be more of that in the future.

Greene: Ha!

Kerans: Thanks for joining us.

Greene: Yup, no problem!

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