As the Washington Capitals stepped onto the ice in Buffalo on Monday evening, they did so with a much-too-familiar vacancy on their defense. The game against the Sabres was the 20th consecutive and 26th of the season without Mike Green in the lineup.
Over the past two seasons, Green's absence from the lineup has become a new normal for Washington and a trying time for the two-time Norris Trophy finalist as the best player at the position. Dating to Feb. 8, Green has missed 52 of the past 62 regular-season contests because of injury.
It's unclear when Green, who was not available to comment for this article, will return from his latest setback, a strained right groin muscle that he suffered in mid-November. When Green's recovery stopping progressing two weeks ago, the Capitals decided to take an experimental route with his rehabilitation, according to several people familiar with the situation who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the defenseman's recovery.
Green received Accelerated Recovery Performance treatment, which involves electrical stimulation, in Minnesota, according to those people. It's unclear whether Green, who skated for five days before the NHL's holiday break, has benefited from the program. But while Green's teammates, coaches and agent, as well as Capitals officials, await his return, all say the groin injury will not pose a significant threat to the defenseman's career. But there's no denying that the steady string of ailments have had an impact on it.
"The last two years, he's had a lot of things go wrong — the concussions, now the groin and the foot," said Nicklas Backstrom, one of Green's close friends on the team. "I think he's trying to be as positive as he can and get back as soon as possible, but it's tough for him."
In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, Green, now 26, led all NHL defensemen in points. But in the two years since, he has been sidelined by injuries to his shoulder, knee and hip flexor; a pair of concussions; a twisted right ankle; and now the groin strain. It's possible that Green's lack of durability could result in a pay cut. The Calgary native will earn $5 million this season in the final year of his current contract, a four-year deal worth $21 million, and become a restricted free agent this summer. To retain Green's negotiating rights in the offseason, the Capitals will need to make a qualifying offer of a one-year deal worth $5 million.
Green played his best game of this season Oct. 22, when he tied his career high of four points in a single contest in Washington's 7-1 win over Detroit, but he missed the next six games with the twisted ankle. Less than eight minutes into his return to the lineup Nov. 11, Green was hit by New Jersey's Ryan Carter and suffered the groin strain.
"Mike's missed more significant time than he would have liked recently, but it's beyond his control — beyond anyone's control," said Craig Oster, Green's agent. "He was very excited about starting the year and taking another step personally, and as a team. The part that is encouraging, in all of these unfortunate circumstances, is that none of the injuries have been of a real significant variety that should have any lasting impact on Mike's ability to play in the long term."
Green's groin injury came not long after the Capitals lost Tom Poti to persistent groin problems. Poti was among the team's top three in ice time for three seasons before he played in just 21 games in 2010-11. Green was making progress in his recovery from the groin strain when he slammed his stick into the boards Dec. 8 as he went off the ice. Shortly after that incident, which the team insisted wasn't a setback, the Capitals sent Green to Minnesota, according to people familiar with the situation.
The program involves a machine called the ARPwave, which sends electrical current through targeted areas of the body in conjunction with controlled movement, to help promote recovery from injury.
According to league sources, Capitals assistant general manager for player personnel Brian MacLellan owns and uses an ARPwave machine. Boston goaltender Tim Thomas is one player who has publicly acknowledged his use of the system and thanked its developers when he accepted the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie last season.
There remains no timetable for Green's return, but when he does the defenseman will have two new coaches and must adapt to a new system of play. Green has attended team meetings and video sessions under coach Dale Hunter and worked with assistant coach Jim Johnson, but it remains to be seen how he will fit into a style of play that doesn't encourage as much offensive risk-taking as former coach Bruce Boudreau's approach.