Short of some significant transaction or injury, Andy Greene is expected to start his tenth season as a key defenseman for the New Jersey Devils. Since 2009-10 and the exception of an injury-shortened 2011-12, Greene has been averaging at least 20 minutes of ice time per game the Devils. In a recent post, Mike slotted him right into the top pairing yet again as part of his status quo lineup. The undrafted defenseman out of Miami of Ohio has taken on big minutes since his fourth season in the NHL and has never stopped receiving them. In that light, Greene has been unqualified success as a undrafted free agent, easily up there with John Madden and Brian Rafalski in this franchise’s history.
However, it has become a problem in recent years. Andy Greene has been doing a lot on the blueline since he was 27. He is now 36 and is expected to play a major role in the team’s defense. Father Time remains undefeated as Greene has clearly declined as a player. Today, I want to show how much he has declined. I know it, you (probably) know it, but how true is it? The evidence shall guide us. So this will cover when he first received significant minutes to his peak years to what he has now become.
This will be a stats-heavy post. Memory for a ten years of a player can be spotty. The numbers will confirm what we may think or feel. Plus, Greene is definitely a player who does not stand out in an eye-test. Greene is far from being a flashy defenseman. He is not particularly offensive, he does not do anything eye-popping like throw big hits, he’s not particularly fast, and he does not usually stand out. His game is all about dependability, reliability, making good decisions, and mitigating bad situations. Greene is the sort of player where on-ice rate stats or relative on-ice stats really show his value. That he can play as much as he does but still have high Corsi For percentages and Shots For percentages; he may not be taking the attempts or the shots himself, but he has helped make them happen for his team while keeping the other team at a minimum. Or, in this case, how that value has fallen over the past several years.
To that end, I will state upfront an assumption about what a good defenseman is. A good defenseman should be able to keep attempts (a.k.a. Corsi), shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances against their team low. And they should have positive attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chance percentages - which means the defender’s team is out-doing their opposition in that category. Ideally, both would rate well. The whole point of defense is two-fold: limit what the opposition does on offense and support your own team to get on (or continue) offense. Again, this is where the rate-states shine because they can show that and objectively over multiple seasons. Simple point totals or “saw-him-good” anecdotes do not. And since they are rate-stats, 5-on-5 play is the best situation to focus on as that is the most common situation a player can play in and it does not introduce any advantages or disadvantages.
I will also say upfront that he’s not your traditional #1 defenseman that can walk onto any team and be a big player right away. He’s not a Doughty or a Subban or a Hedman or a Chara. He is someone who has handled a lot of tough minutes and has not (always) been an anchor holding the team back. Yeah, he makes mistakes here and there but so does literally every player - elite, very good, good, average, or bad - in the history of sport. What makes a player good or not is whether the player can perform consistently well. Greene has been that player for most of his career. I intend to show that along with his decline.
Greene’s Usage from 2009-2018
Let us begin with some general usage information about Andy Greene. To best understand how he is now as a player, we must understand how he once was. (Note: From here on out, this is regular season stats only as I want to compare apples to apples. I wish the Devils made the playoffs more often than they did but I cannot unspill spilt milk.)
Head coach Jacques Lemaire must have saw something in Greene in 2009 as he gave him a lot to do. Power play, penalty kills, and especially 5-on-5 play. While the 5-on-5 Time on Ice per game never surpassed 18 minutes again, Greene has been solidly between 16 and 17 minutes for the last eight seasons. Note that has stayed in place across multiple coaches from Lemaire to the short-lived John MacLean error to Peter DeBoer and to the current John Hynes regime. Say what you want about those coaches but when four different bench bosses decide to keep feeding a defenseman minutes, then the defenseman is probably doing something they appreciate.
His special teams play has fluctuated. While Greene has become a huge part of the team’s penalty kill since the lockout-shortened 2013 season, his power play time has all over the place. He started with a lot, dropped in following seasons, saw it pick up in 2013 and in the 2013-14 season, and then has dwindled to being completely outside of the regular two units. A big part of that would be the result other players in the system plus the system changing - especially the 1-defenseman, 4-forward 1-3-1 formation. All the more reason to focus on 5-on-5 play for Greene.
Going back to coaches, there has been some tinkering with respect to who would play along side the left-shooting defenseman, Greene. It started with Bryce Salvador. The 2010-11 season was marred by injuries to the blueline, so Anssi Salmela ended up with the most minutes with Greene. But a young, big defenseman got a chance in that season that would become more common with Greene: Mark Fayne. I greatly enjoyed this pairing in 2011-12. Yet, DeBoer decided to give the young Adam Larsson more of a go in the lockout-shortened season. That did not last as Greene-Fayne was restored in 2013-14 for greatness (more praise for that pairing will come in this post). Fayne signed with Edmonton in 2014 so it was back to Greene and Larsson for the next two seasons - especially in 2015-16. It was rare to see Greene on the ice without #5 next to him. Of course, Larsson was worth Taylor Hall to Edmonton and that required further change. And not a definitive one. Ben Lovejoy edged Damon Severson as Greene’s most common teammate in 2016-17 by a few minutes and Sami Vatanen was not incredibly far head of Steve Santini in 2017-18. The larger point is that Greene has been the consistent factor on the blueline for nine seasons with six different players who can claim to be his most common teammate on defense. I emphasize that is what Greene should be known for: his consistent, reliable play.
Usage goes beyond just minutes. Greene has recently been known for getting a lot of zone starts in his end of the rink.
It is weird to see that Greene actually received favorable zone starts at some point in his career. That took a downturn after DeBoer’s first season with the Devils as Greene went from starting shifts in his own end of the rink a bit more often to rarely starting in the opposition’s end. This was especially the case in the last four seasons.
I’ve included the team’s on-ice shooting and save percentages in 5-on-5 play for additional context. Greene was undercut by some rough goaltending play in three of these nine seasons. And also undercut by some poor finishing in three others - with the worst of both happening in 2010-11. But for the most part, Greene has not been victimized by terrible goaltending in the last four seasons and while the shooting has not been so hot, he is also not hoping the team could buy a break in 5-on-5 play. This has largely been the case in the last four seasons, which is nice given that those four seasons was when the coaches - especially Hynes - decided to just keep throwing him out there in a defensive zone start situations. Keep that in mind for some of these other stats coming up.
Greene’s Production from 2009-2018
But first, let’s look at Greene’s production. It looked really promising after the 2009-10 season. He never matched that level, with one sort-of exception.
Greene has never been a significant shooter of the puck. He’s only averaged more than 1.5 shots per game once in this nine season stretch. He even averaged less than a shot per game in two of them. Unsurprisingly, you can see that he’s really consistent for a couple of goals and some assists throughout a season. The exceptions are 2009-10 and 2013-14. Not so coincidentally, those were the only two seasons where Greene received prime PP time with an average over 2 minutes per game on the man advantage. Those opportunities allowed him to put up more than ten power play points in both of those seasons - which surely drove up the numbers.
It could be argued that Greene maybe should have received more of a chance on power plays in past seasons. But not the Greene of today. As nice as it is to see that he increased his shooting by ten, there is no way Greene should be on a power play unit ahead of Will Butcher, Sami Vatanen, and Damon Severson unless some big injuries took place.
The decline of Greene really does not have to do much with his production. It is more worth highlighting to show that while he may have some skills, he has never been the defender to bomb away shots or create successful scoring plays. That coaches have turned away from using Greene regularly on power plays in favor of others suggest that Greene’s skillset is not so greater than others in man advantage situations. That he is not much of a shooter or producer underlines that Greene’s value is more in how he impacts play on the ice and away from the puck. Greene has been quite good at that. Emphasis on has been. Let’s dive deep into it.
Greene’s 5-on-5 Play from 2009-2018
As stated earlier, I am working on the assumption that good defensemen will have relatively low on-ice rates and positive (above 50%) percentages for Corsi (shooting attempts), shots, scoring chances (see Natural Stat Trick’s glossary for the area), and high-danger scoring chances (ditto). They should not be stuck in their own end, conceding a lot to the opposition; and they should support their team in getting the puck and doing something with it. The rates and percentages are for the team when the player is on the ice. It does not mean that only Greene alone caused this. However, over a season, the numbers indicate whether or not he as at least contributed to those rates and percentages. And with relative - on-ice minus off-ice - rates, we can show how the team’s stats changed when Greene took a shift.
First: on-ice against rates.
Notice the change in these stats across the board over the seasons. When Greene was thrust into this larger role where he actually received more offensive zone starts than defensive ones in 2009-10, Greene did not do so well relative to his teammates, but it was not like the offense was hitting the Devils with a deluge of offense whenever #6 was out there. But every single one of these stats improved in the following three seasons. In the lockout shortened 2013 season, the Devils were incredibly stingy when Greene was on the ice. A SA/60 (Shots Against per 60) of just above 20 is truly remarkable. Opposing teams were clamped down when #6 was out there, whether it was in attempts or scoring chances. While other Devils may have posted better rates, they were not necessarily playing as much or against as difficult competition or with as strong teammates as Greene. While the 2013-14 season saw a bit of a bump in the wrong direction, they were still truly impressive numbers for someone who played over 1,400 5-on-5 minutes.
However, those good times would not last. Attempts went up dramatically against Greene in 2014-15 and, with that, the rate of shots and chances against the Devils went up. Greene actually ranked well among Devils defenders; the team as a whole was allowing more. That season was the first one where Greene received significantly more defensive zone starts than not. Going from about 47% OZS% to 40% is a big shift and Greene and his teammates could not hold the opposition back nearly as much as he did in the prior two seasons. There was a bounce back season (of sorts) in 2015-16 when the Greene-Larsson pairing made gains in three out of these four stats (and the high danger chance rate only went up a little). Making these gains was more impressive as Greene had the lowest OZS% rate of his career at under 32%. I understand that zone starts may not have as much of a factor in terms of usage, but this was an extreme for even Greene.
Since then, Greene has continued to be given a heavy dose of defensive zone starts along with a lot of 5-on-5 minutes. The problem is that Greene has been lit up in these last two seasons. The 2016-17 season was his first season ever with a SA/60 rate over 30. I was stunned that John Moore managed that in 2015-16 - to see Greene get shelled at that level is a warning sign. That increase in shot rate also led to an increase in attempt rate, which means the opposition was able to get more going in New Jersey’s end of the rink. Chances also went up, but not as dramatically. While Greene had different partners in 2017-18, these rates went up further still. The big minute defenseman was witnessing big numbers of attempts, shots, and chances against the Devils when he was on the ice. That’s not good for any skater; it is especially bad when that player is the top pairing LHD on the team with over close to 1,400 minutes!
We can see that these rates really started going out of control in 2014-15, there was a respite in 2015-16, and then they just went totally out in the last two seasons. Decline? You bet.
But, of course, these rates may be manageable as long as the Devils out-performed the opponent’s rates. This is where the for-percentages come in. Being over 50% in CF% means the Devils out-attempted their opponents when Greene was on the ice. Being over 50% means they out-shot them. Being over 50% in SCF% or HDCF% means they out-chanced them. Maybe that mitigates some of these more awful rate stats.
They did not.
Greene has been consistently positive in CF% and SF% in his first five seasons as being a big-minute defenseman. Chances did not always go that way. But look at that 2013 and 2013-14 season. Across the board, the Devils were dominant in 5-on-5 play when Greene was out there. Not good. Not very good. Dominant. The Devils controlled much of the game when #6 was behind them to help out in both ends of the rink. Those two teams were better than what they achieved. (Aside: Alas, I regret not realizing sooner that a 42-year old Brodeur should have been relegated to #2 duty. I did, like every other Devils fan then, lament the shootout. That was the 0-13 season.)
But since that awesome 2013-14 season, it all fell apart. Greene’s percentages took a noticeable downturn in 2014-15. They absolutely cratered in John Hynes’ first season in 2015-16. While there were some improvements in the last two seasons, Greene was solidly in the red in three out of the four stats. Again, these percentages reflect how the team did against their opponents in each category. For Greene to have a CF% below 50%, it means the team was being out-attempted when Greene was out there. The lower it was, the worse it was. Given that teams rarely fire pucks towards the net outside of the offensive zone, this is evidence that Greene was pinned back a lot more. Even if that did not lead to goals against, it does mean that the Devils could not get the puck and drive the play in their favor. Even if they made exits, it was not turning into offense of their own - which is also not desirable. Hynes’ teams have never been great possession teams, but Greene has been drowning in attempts, shots, and scoring chances in the last three seasons. High danger chances are the lone exception but as CJ wrote, you can’t spell HDCF without CF. Being relatively good (or not bad) at that does not make up for being wrecked in the other categories. As with the on-ice against rate stats, Greene’s decline is clear.
But there could be another saving grace for Greene. Relative stats. Sure. Greene’s numbers went all kinds of awry from 2015-16 to now. But the team also underwent a rebuild in earnest in that time frame. There was new management, coaches, and plenty of overturn in players, tactics, and philosophies. While the team has become worse as a whole on defense, perhaps Greene was still providing a positive impact when he came on the ice. The against rates were bad, the percentages are bad, but maybe Greene’s on-ice stats compared to Greene’s off-ice stats were good?
That’s also a ‘no.’
Once again, you can see the improvement over those first five seasons of big-minutes-for-Greene hockey. The peaks are clearly in the middle. This is further evidence of how amazing his 2013-14 season was in on-ice play. Unlike the last two charts, the 2014-15 was not a drop in the wrong direction. OK, the CA/60 jumped up a little but so did the CF% so that’s no big deal.
But from 2015-16 onward, it goes from not-so-good, to not good, to really not good. With the exception of high danger chances, the Devils gave up a lot more attempts, shots, and scoring chances whenever Greene took a shift. He played a lot so that happened often. While a relative CF% or SF% change (good or bad) may not be all him, he certainly did not help it. If we are to, say, praise the shots against rate dropping by a notable amount whenever Greene stepped on the ice from 2011-12 to 2015-16, then we need to be critical when that rate rose when he stepped on the ice in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Once again, this is further evidence of the decline of Greene.
One last potential saving grace: goals. What about the goals? OK. So the on-ice play suffered badly when Greene took to the ice in the last few seasons, especially last season. But happened with scoring? Couldn’t have that been better than expected?
For the purposes of context, I’ve lined up the team’s actual 5-on-5 scoring with the expected goals model at Corsica. The short version of the model is that it takes the shot information and predicts what should have happened based on past probability of those attempts becoming goals. It is a model; it is not perfection, but it is something as a point of comparison.
Reality has not been kind in comparison to the model. The scoring has run the gamut of beating this model in a good way, not coming close to meeting it, and not being too far from it. The model was more conservative than what actually happened when Greene was on the ice. Greene’s own relative goals for percentage shifted more wildly than what was expected by the model. That is not all on Greene. Recall some of those on-ice shooting and save percentages. In 2010-11 and 2013-14, the Devils’ goalies combined for less than a 91% save percentage when Greene was out there. Greene can’t buy saves so that made his performances seem a bit worse than they were - which means his 2013-14 season was more awesome than it may have felt. The 2011-12 season could have been impacted in this way, except Greene’s teammates shot at over 10% to make up for the large amount of goals scored.
But this does not really help make the last two or three seasons any better. Greene received some great goaltending for the scoring to beat the model in 2015-16. The goaltending wasn’t 94% good but was still above average in the following two seasons. The team shooting was real low in 2016-17 which meant for a really tough goal differential and despite more scoring in 2017-18, there were more goals as a result of more shots against. Greene was never much of a producer so we know that Greene did not contribute much to the Devils’ own scoring. So he was not much of a factor to help mitigate some of these goal differentials. The model being superior in some of these seasons mean that things could (should) have gone better than they did based on what happened on the ice. It’s just a point of comparison; it is only just a model.
These stats are the least fair to Greene since he does not create a lot of goals, he certainly does not score a lot of goals, and he’s not in the crease to stop them. That said, the scoring was bad for the Devils on top of the run of play being bad for the Devils when Greene took a shift in 5-on-5 play in the past two seasons. It is even further evidence of the decline of Greene.
Greene’s 5-on-5 Play Most Common Defensive Partner from 2009-2018
One more thing before conclusions can be made: teammates. Rather than go into all of his teammates, the one that would have the most impact on his 5-on-5 play would be his most common defensive partner. I brought it up at the beginning to provide context as far as who has mostly played with. You may have noticed that most of them are defensive-minded defensemen who do not have notably significant offensive games. Salvador fits that; Fayne fits that; Larsson fits that (arguably); and Lovejoy fit that. The exceptions were Salmela, who was not defensive minded or all that good, and Vatanen, who definitely has an offensive skillset. How did Greene do with these common defensive partners?
Quickly using the With or Without You stats at Natural Stat Trick, we can begin to answer this. This is a quick view of just shots and attempts (Corsi):
The high-level conclusion is that up until 2013-14, Greene was the dominant player compared to his partner. Together with Salvador and Salmela was not all that great and Greene was better off apart from him. The first season with Fayne and the first season with Larsson were better pairings; but again, better things happened to Greene when he was away from them - and more for Greene than Fayne or Larsson. In 2013-14, we had the ideal pairing. Greene-Fayne was fantastic together and both players were not as fantastic apart. Even then, Greene was better off apart than Fayne when they had to be separated.
Once again, things changed after 2013-14. The second season with Larsson found Greene to be not that well off away from Larsson than with him. The third season saw not only saw have worse things happen to Greene away from Larsson but also that Larsson was (somewhat) better off without Greene. Those two played so much together that being apart was a small amount of time, but the point remains. We saw a return to Greene being better than his partner in 2016-17, except the time together was abysmal from a CF% standpoint. (Aside: The numbers and run of play was better with Greene-Severson.) But in this past season, Greene appears to be weighing down Vatanen. Once a safe-bet to be the better defender on his pairing, we can no longer say that is for sue. It is another sign of his decline.
Conclusions: The Decline is Real and Why It Is a Problem
Andy Greene has played significant minutes on the blueline for the last nine seasons. While his usage has changed over time, his 5-on-5 play is the most common situation for him and the one that best reflects his impact on the team. His PK work may be good or not, but 3-4 minutes per game is not going to outweigh 16-18 minutes per game of 5-on-5 play. For the first five years of this nine-year run, Greene made a lot of strides to be a very good suppressor of attempts, shots, and scoring chances. While the goals did not always go that way and Greene himself did not score a lot, when he was out there, he was putting in some of the best defensive work for a lot of minutes and a lot of tough shifts.
Greene’s apex was clearly the 2013-14 season. That was his second and last season where he received a lot of power play time. That was his second and last season where he put up over 30 points. While the on-ice rates against the Devils were even lower in 2013, when Greene took to the ice in 2013-14, the Devils saw improvements in shots against, attempts against, chances against, and the ratio of those events by the Devils compared to total events. He was outstanding alongside Mark Fayne; they were a boss pairing. This was a season where Greene was so good, one could credibly call him snubbed from the 2014 USA Hockey Olympic roster. While the 2012 playoff run was huge, this was his best season. And it turned into his most lucrative as he signed a 5-year, $25 million extension on July 30, 2014. Greene proved he could be the Devils’ top pairing left-side defenseman and showed that he can be an excellent defender. Of course the Devils banked on him to be that guy for the future.
Since then, there has been a lot of changes with new coaches, management, team philosophy, and so much more. Greene has continued to be used as the team’s top left-sided defenseman. Hynes continued and forced Greene to take even more defensive zone starts along with his already tough competition. Despite different partners and more than enough time with the same coaching staff, Greene has not been able to come even close to being the suppressor he once was. Knowing that he is not much of a scorer or a shooter himself, this makes him less valuable. The combination of these changes plus his age really showed that he is far from what he used to be.
Greene is hardly the first or last player to not be as effective in his mid-30s as he was just a few years earlier. But the decline has been apparent for two to three seasons now, especially in this past season. The on-ice rates and the percentages became so bad. So much so that Greene really should not play the amount of minutes and the kinds of situations he has been given for the last several years. As with Ben Lovejoy, when he was given a more limited role in 2017-18, he was far more effective than he was in 2016-17. However, the Devils cannot do that with Greene. There is no other viable option to take his role.
The Devils could afford to move Lovejoy around since they had a player in quality like Severson and others like Santini, who was overwhelmed when given a spot next to Greene in 2017-18. There were options on the right side. The left side was Greene, John Moore - who was by no means good at defense, and a rookie in Will Butcher. Moore’s gone, Butcher is still a young defenseman, and who else is going to play on the left side? Mirco Mueller? Yegor Yakolev? A veteran winning a job on a PTO in camp? The Devils only have one player who has the experience to play with the Devils’ top forwards, which means playing against the other team’s best players, as well as playing a lot: Greene. And, as I’ve shown in great detail, he is no longer an effective defenseman in that role. Yet, he is most likely staying in that role.
If he was still holding his own for the last few seasons or even playing to the level of his 2014-15 season, then this would not be such a big deal. It would not be ideal, but it could be manageable. But based on the last two seasons, a team meant to be fast, attacking, supportive is undercut when one of the top defensemen is getting out-shot regularly and is posting CF%s in the 43-45% range. The whole point of defense is not to get stuck in your own end; yet that has been happening when Greene has taken shifts in recent memory. Greene has effectively been used like a defensive defenseman over the last four seasons and has not been effective at it in the last two. I do not expect an even older Greene to somehow turn it around.
This is arguably one of general manager Ray Shero’s biggest problems with the team right now. While Greene himself was never a #1, do-it-all, all-star caliber defenseman, he played really well in his big-minutes role for five out of nine seasons and has only been a liability in the last two of them. Somebody had to play the role and he did the best he could, which was pretty good until recently. Now, Greene will be paid $5 million for this season and next season, he’ll be 36 by November 2018, and there is no heir apparent to come in and at least take a fraction of Greene’s tougher shifts in the hopes of Greene being more effective on the ice. As he is team captain, like Salvador before him, he will get into games; Hynes and his staff will continue to use him in the same way he has been used under him. He is no longer nearly as effective as he once was in that usage. That is why the decline of Greene is such a problem. Greene is going to be here and the status quo roster has him slated to play the same role that he has struggled mightily in the last two seasons. The decline is real and unless the Devils see something completely differently than what I am seeing in the numbers, this should have been realized before last season. But his spot did not change in 2017-18 and his spot in the lineup is not expected to change for 2018-19. I do not know about you, this makes little sense.
Even worse, there are even fewer good options for a change. There has not been a defenseman on the free agent market to really take the role, trying to acquire such a defenseman in a trade has not been available, future free agent defensemen have been tied up, and none of the prospects are even close to taking the spot. The long term hope may be Ty Smith, but that’s a long way out for a problem that the Devils have right now going into next season. One short-term idea is to see if Will Butcher could handle a bigger role. After all, Greene was only three seasons into the NHL before Lemaire gave him a massive 18-minutes per game in 5-on-5 situations alone. That is a lot to ask for someone who was primarily given more limited situations where he could succeed. He should probably try to take Moore’s role first before going all the way to the top. That also means the Devils have to survive likely getting shelled again in 5-on-5 play when Greene is out there. For the Devils to make that proverbial next step as a team, they need to upgrade in Greene’s role and get him into a smaller one until that contract ends. Shero has yet to sort that out. In the meantime, Greene will likely play a major role on defense in this coming season and I fear this decline is going to continue.
I like Andy Greene a lot. I was taken aback initially at how long he has been a Devil and playing significant minutes on defense. I knew he was declining as a player but the numbers surprised me at how bad it has become. I am taken aback now that he has been continued to be used in this way despite Greene not contributing nearly enough as he once did. And I am disappointed that there are no viable solutions for this issue at the moment.
That all written, I want to know what you think about Andy Greene and his performances in recent seasons. Did you think he was declining as a player? Did you expect the magnitude to be this large? What should the Devils do about Andy Greene? Would he thrive with fewer and easier minutes in 5-on-5 play? Who could take his spot on the blueline, if anyone can? If you’re Ray Shero, then what do you do?
Thanks to NHL.com, Hockey-Reference, Corsica, and Natural Stat Trick for having the information available to dig deep into players like Greene’s career. Thank you all for reading.