Heading into this season, it was well-documented that the Devils would have some issues on defense. Between the amount of youth on the blueline, limited legitimate top-four options, and the overall dearth of talent in the team’s pool of defensemen, it was unlikely that the Devils would be bossing anyone around on the back end in 2017-18. One of the assumptions made in those analyses, though, was that Andy Greene, who suffered through one of his worse seasons as a professional, had perhaps entered his decline and was not necessarily the top-pairing performer he once was. The defense, as expected, has had some issues in the early-going, but at least based on the first month of the season, reports of Andy Greene’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
For the past seven-or-so seasons, Andy Greene has, for the most part, been the undisputed top defender on this Devils defense. This includes the 2011-12 run to the Cup finals and the following seasons, when Greene, at the height of his powers, made Mark Fayne into a legitimate top-pairing player (and made him a lot of money). From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Greene was a great defender and very much underappreciated around the league (and in this writer’s humble opinion, deserved a lot more consideration for the 2014 US Olympic team that ended up crashing out in the quarterfinals).
Perhaps the most impressive part of Greene’s play, was that he was constantly tasked with heavy PK minutes, as well as matching up against other teams’ best, and he was doing it largely without a partner that could legitimately be considered top-paring-caliber. He has either been with journeyman-level players like the aforementioned Fayne, or charged with taking care of inexperienced players not-otherwise ready for that spotlight, like Jon Merrill or Adam Larsson (in his earlier years). The past two seasons, though, Greene started to look less like the standout defender he had been at his peak. Combined with him pressing into his mid-thirties, the easy conclusion to make was that Greene was starting to go downhill as a player.
In 2015-16, the Greene-Larsson pairing was the undisputed top unit for New Jersey, but they took their share of lumps that season. The thing was, though, that some of the underlying stats and viewing of their play pointed to Larsson being the stronger of the two and that Greene might be the one dragging the pairing down somewhat. Now, there are mitigating factors at play here, with John Hynes having a tendency (perhaps out of necessity, given the personnel) to heap a ton of responsibility in terms of tough deployment onto one pairing, but it was still clear that Greene seemed to be slipping a little while Larsson was improving.
After the departure of Larrson in the Hall trade in the summer of 2016, Greene’s fortunes didn’t seem to be getting better. In 2016-17, Greene often looked a step slow and did not perform particularly well on a team that was obviously struggling and which often looked rudderless on D. There were again factors that were tough on Greene, including being buried in deployment and being saddled with an overmatched Ben Lovejoy for much of the season, but he still just didn’t necessarily look like the same guy anymore.
The logical conclusion to make over the summer for the now-34-year-old Greene was that he was in decline as a player. Not necessarily unfair for a guy in his mid-30s who had been leaned on pretty hard for the better part of a decade. But when projecting the Devils’ defense for 2017-18, the prevailing assumption was that the Devils would probably still lean on Greene for lack of any better options,he just might not be fully equipped to handle such responsibility at his age. The Greene on the ice to this point in the season, however, has indicated that perhaps the old workhorse isn’t quite done being really good at this NHL defenseman thing.
Greene has looked strong on the ice so far this season, with him confident, making solid plays in his own end, and not getting beat in some of the ways we saw in 2016-17. Saddled with a lot of tough matchups and, a lot of the time, with another player probably not quite ready for the spotlight in Steve Santini, Greene has looked like the calming force he was a few years back. His old levels of offensive production haven’t returned, but there’s no denying that Andy Greene has looked a lot more like the guy who earned the “C” and that 5-year deal he’s currently playing under.
The underlying numbers definitely back up this early resurgence, too. CJ’s post on Wednesday offered a good look at what Greene has been able to do by the numbers compared to his fellow defensemen. Greene sits third on the team in relative CF% (via Natural Stat Trick), despite constantly being asked to take on the hardest matchups and getting buried in zone starts. Only Damon Severson outpaces Greene in CF%, and he’s been the beneficiary of substantially softer deployment in the time he’s been away from Greene. Conversely, Greene is being utterly buried away from Severson (19% offensive zone starts) and putting up roughly equivalent numbers to what Severson is in his softer non-Greene minutes.
Greene’s numbers look similarly impressive when compared to his other main partner thus far, Steve Santini. The Santini-Greene paring has basically been banned from starting in the offensive zone by coach Hynes (11% OZS), but has largely held its own in spite of it, with a CF% around 45 and pretty much breaking even in shots and high-danger chances. Away from Greene, Santini has struggled mightily, though. He receives tougher starts than Greene when they’re apart, but they’re still not as low as when they’re together and Santini is utterly drowning in that time, with attempts, shots, and chances all hovering in the mid-35% range without Greene. After brief interludes by Larsson and arguably Severson, Greene seems to have returned to his perch as the undisputed top dog on defense.
The question will obviously be whether the 35-year-old Greene will be able to keep this impressive run of play up. That remains to be seen, but at least for now, he is serving as a stable base for what will continue to be a defense the will likely otherwise struggle, at least at 5-on-5. The offensive spark he had earlier on in his career hasn’t necessarily resurfaced, but the Devils have some other defenders who can fill that role now (namely, Will Butcher and Severson). Handling the tough assignments is something the Devils have a relative dearth of options for outside of Greene, so his play thus far has been very important and should be appreciated as such. It’s good to see the captain back on his game, and if he can keep it going and help this team have something that resembles a legitimate first-pairing, he’ll be among the most valuable players on the roster.