By Adam Vingan
One week before Mike Green returned to the Washington Capitals’ lineup after missing 23 consecutive games with a strained right groin muscle, he admitted that it could be the type of injury that could follow him for the rest of his career.
“I think I’m going to have to be cognizant of this for the rest of my career, probably,” Green said December 27. “It’s something you’ve got to take care of, especially with hockey. It’s such a common thing. It’s just maintenance right now, making sure I’m on top of my stuff and getting better. I don’t think I’ll be 100 percent for a long time, I’ve just got to get to that stage where I can play.”
After what looks like another setback Saturday, the Caps should also be cognizant of Green not being 100 percent for a long time and consider that when ultimately negotiating with him this summer.
Green, whose four-year, $21 million contract expires at season’s end, did not play in the third period of Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Head coach Dale Hunter said after the game that Green’s groin tightened up on him and that he left the game as a precautionary measure. Green skated all of 7:11 Saturday, Couple that with his 15:43 in his return Tuesday in Washington’s 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames – where he admitted after the game that he felt “not that great” – and Green played 22:54 before hurting himself again.
On the bright side, Green’s recent two-game return from injury was longer than his previous ones. The problems for Green began last February 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he took the brunt of Brooks Orpik’s slap shot to the right side of his head. He missed the Caps’ subsequent game before returning February 12 against the Los Angeles Kings, playing 22:03. Green, however, experienced concussion-like symptoms after the game and missed the next five. In his second return from injury last season, Green lasted two shifts before receiving a strong hit from the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan along the boards February 26. He did not return for the rest of the regular season.
This season featured more of the same. Green once again took a puck to the face October 22 against the Detroit Red Wings, but it was his right ankle that flared up on him as he was falling to the ice. Six games later, Green returned November 11 against the New Jersey Devils and strained his groin after an awkward collision with Ryan Carter after just eight shifts. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Green has played in a total (regular season and postseason) of 57 games. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, who was and continues to be plagued with a concussion and its symptoms, has played in 49.
While head injuries are obviously more serious, groin injuries can hamper a hockey player; they affect a player’s stride and prevent the affected player from making full, hard stops. Of course, one can’t mention groins around the Caps without thinking of Tom Poti.
Poti has been plagued by a nagging groin since signing with Washington prior to the 2007-08 season, but it became a major issue for him last season. Poti made it through only two games before his groin began to bother him. He later returned for back-to-back games against the Boston Bruins October 19-21 after sitting out the previous three. That return, however, did not last long as he missed the next eight games. A one-game return November 11 (there’s that date again) led to another layoff, this one totaling six games.
Poti then played in 13 of the next 15 before a concussion sidelined him again. Finally, after his groin continued to flare up on him after what seemed like dozens of returns, Poti did not play again after January 12, finishing the season with only 21 games. Sound vaguely familar?
During the offseason, Poti was adamant that he would be ready for training camp, but that did not happen. The team placed Poti, still under contract through the end of next season, on long-term injured reserve, which wiped out his $2.875 million salary cap hit.
Poti’s status – or lack thereof – is something that Washington should keep in mind when considering negotiating with Green. Green is a restricted free agent making over $1 million per season, meaning that if the Caps are interested in retaining him, then they must make him a qualifying offer of at least 100 percent of his salary, or his current rate of $5 million per year.
With that said, Washington has eight impending free agents this summer, including John Carlson, Mike Knuble, Dennis Wideman and Tomas Vokoun. Green’s $5.250 million cap hit needs to be used elsewhere. Re-signing Carlson, a restricted free agent that is still on his entry-level contract, is definitely one of the Caps’ top priorities this summer. If Vokoun has a solid season, he is due for a hefty raise from his current $1.5 million. Wideman could be a long-term solution as Washington’s veteran defensive presence. There is also Dmitry Orlov, who could develop into a defenseman similar to Green with possibly more defensive and physical upside.
Green will not vanish like Poti apparently has if Washington decides not to tender a qualifying offer; he is a 26-year-old two-time Norris Trophy finalist and one of the league’s most dynamic offensive defensemen. That is, when he’s healthy, which has been rare lately. Another option – albeit an unlikely one – would be to offer Green the minimum in hopes that he will reject it and another team will tender an offer sheet. If Green signs that offer sheet and the Caps choose to decline, they will receive draft pick compensation and can find another young defenseman to mold.
Green might never fully be the same smooth-skating defenseman that earned the aforementioned accolades again, and when even Green himself recognizes that, perhaps it is time for another team to take a chance.
It has been obvious this season that the Caps’ defensive corps struggles without Green, but the Caps would be making the same mistake twice if they sign an injury-prone defensemen to a multi-year contract. Washington does not need two defensemen worth several million dollars sitting out the majority of the season.
Or three if you consider Jeff Schultz.