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New Jersey Devils Captain Andy Greene is Currently Having a Surprising Season

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Not much has gone right for the New Jersey Devils this season. However, team captain Andy Greene has been surprisingly good on the ice - but possibly and surprisingly not good as a leader. This post explores the 2019-20 surprise of a season so far for Greene.

Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils
Andy Greene. Captain. Good on the ice. Off the ice? Uh.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Andy Greene has been a New Jersey Devil almost as long as this blog has existed. Greene signed with New Jersey out of Miami University in the first season of In Lou We Trust. I have documented the rise of Greene as the top defenseman of the New Jersey Devils earlier in this decade. How much of a rise was it? There was a real argument he (and many others) should have been a member of the United States team back in 2014 over overrated defensemen like Jack Johnson. I have also documented his significant decline while still being the top defenseman of the New Jersey Devils. I am not alone in noting how far Greene has fallen as per CJ’s post about the Greene problem back in July. I expected this issue to continue. Surprising to me, amid all of the other problems with the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils, Andy Greene’s on-ice play is not one of them.

In fact, Greene is one of the best players the Devils have had in 5-on-5 situations. He has continued to be main man on the Devils’ penalty kill. While Greene has not been a productive defenseman in his career, his 4 assists in 11 games gives him a rate of approximately 0.36 points per game. If Greene plays in all 67 of the team’s remaining games and maintains that rate, then he would have 28 points - more than he had last season and his highest point total since the 32 points he put up in the 2013-14 season. For a 37-year old defenseman in the last season of his current contract, this is all a pleasant surprise in a season with few of them for the Devils.

Greene Has Been Quite Good On the Ice

The 5-on-5 play is especially important. Greene does not play on the power play and even with his penalty kill usage still being heavy, the majority of his minutes are in 5-on-5 situations. The 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick give a good overview of whether the player is performing well or poorly in those situations. Mind you, it will not pick up a mistake or a weakness in their game, but it will demonstrate whether how well the team is impacted when they are on the ice doing what they are doing. It is more of a macro-look at a player, whereas remembering mistakes or bad shifts are a micro-look. Everyone has bad shifts and makes mistakes. But a bad player will be bad in the macro as well as in the selectively-remembered micro. Greene in 2019-20 has looked very good in the macro so far and roughly a zillion times better than the previous two seasons. Here are the numbers side-by-side as per Natural Stat Trick (this does not include yesterday’s game in Vancouver):

Andy Greene 5-on-5 Stats 2017-Current
Andy Greene 5-on-5 Stats 2017-Current
Natural Stat Trick as of November 09, 2019

I understand the comparison is not one-to-one since Greene has played only eleven games so far. That stated, the defensive rates are fantastic. There is not a lot of offense happening when Greene has been on the ice (or for the Devils overall in 5-on-5) but there is even less by the opposition. This has yielded in some great percentages across the board. All of the bolded percentages mean that Greene is the best defenseman on the Devils in that stat. In the case of expected goals, Greene is the best player on the team in that category. (Aside: Wayne Simmonds is the only other Devil entering the Vancouver game with a xGF% over 60%). P.K. Subban is the only one who has him beat in CF%.

What the numbers represent is that what Greene is doing on the ice and how he is used in games has resulted in very positive things for the Devils. Greene has not seen many goals against in 5-on-5 and the play on the ice does not anticipate a lot of goals against, as indicated by his low xGA/60. Greene and his teammates are not conceding a lot of scoring chances. They are not creating much, but they are allowing even less so they come out ahead in that matchup. Similarly, Greene and his teammates are often winning the matchups in terms of attempts (Corsi) and shots. In the past two seasons, Greene and the Devils have been swamped and smashed in the run of play when Greene took a shift. So far this season, the Devils have excelled. That is a very good thing.

The big change is right at the top with TOI/GP, or time on ice per game. While it is still early and Sami Vatanen’s injury may impact this, Greene did see a reduction in minutes in 5-on-5 play. It is not a massive drop but he is not at all among team leaders in 5-on-5 TOI/GP. Subban, Damon Severson, and Will Butcher are all above him with at least 16 minutes in that category. Adding special teams does not change the gap much. At NHL.com, Greene’s average time on ice in all situations is 19:36 - which is still fourth among Devils defensemen. Only the names of the defenders changed: Subban, Vatanen, and Severson. This all means that Greene is not the top defenseman any more. Something that probably should have happened in 2017 when he was getting steamrolled regularly. Better late than never. But this was no Lovejoy-like move from going from a first pairing to the third pairing as a specialist. Greene still plays significant minutes but not against the toughest competition as often and/or with the top forwards. He still plays mostly with Vatanen, although a few shifts with others have went well - which speaks more to the possibility that Greene may be playing quite well. It is still somewhat early in the season, but the decision by John Hynes and his staff to make this happen with Greene has paid off on the ice. There are few fans lining up to give Hynes any credit but you can give him that one.

At least in 5-on-5 play, it has paid off. Greene is still used extensively on the penalty kill with 3:38 of shorthanded ice time per game per NHL.com. Not only does that lead all of the Devils’ skaters, it ranks as the ninth highest per-game rate of time in the entire NHL. I cannot say that it has gone well since the Devils’ penalty kill has one of the lowest success rates in the league at 74.1%. A quick check at the penalty killing on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick reveals that when Greene has been on the ice killing a penalty, the team has allowed a rate of over 103 attempts per sixty minutes, 54 shots per sixty minutes, and an expected goals against rate of 6.52 per sixty minutes. These are not the very worst rate stats for a penalty killer, but they are a far cry from the solid rate stats from last season, where he also played a ton of shorthanded minutes. If there is a concern with Greene’s overall performances, then it would be here. Then again, since the Devils have a penalty kill success rate in the mid-70s, the penalty kill as a whole is a concern. Just add it to the list of issues of the 2019-20 Devils so far.

Still, penalty killing is only a fraction of a player’s performance. Again, the most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5 and performing well there is more important as it is when most of the player’s shifts are taken. I was surprised to see that Greene has been performing much more effectively in these situations. Especially in comparison to the last two seasons when he had on-ice rate stats suitable for someone that the coaches should consider scratching. This may be only a silver lining in the dark cloud that is the 2019-20 Devils, but it is there and it is shining.

The surprising nature of Greene’s season does not end there. I am also surprised how he is doing in his other role on the team - and this one is not positive at all.

Leadership? Where?

Greene is more than just a 37-year old left-sided defenseman for the New Jersey Devils in the final season of his contract. Greene is also the captain of the team. Greene has had the ‘C’ on his jersey since the start of the 2015-16 season, following Bryce Salvador’s retirement in September 2015. The title carries some additional weight and responsibility on a hockey team. A player does not need a letter on their jersey to act like a leader; but it is fair to assume that the man with the ‘C’ is one of the leaders on the team. Greene has been in this role for quite some time too. Greene has the second longest tenure of any Devils captain as per Hockey-Reference. For the non-Devils fans who read All About the Jersey, the longest tenure is held by Hockey Hall of Famer and legendary defenseman Scott Stevens. No one would ever confuse Greene and Stevens on the ice. I do not think they would in the locker room. Still, while I am not in the dressing room or have a source that is in the room, I do think it is fair to assume that Greene’s captaincy has not been an issue since this is his fifth season with it.

This season, though, I do have to question how effective Greene has been as a leader. That is the surprising part. The New Jersey Devils did not just enter the Vancouver game with a terrible 4-7-4 record. They entered it with four shut out losses, all on the road. They entered it with many of those losses - regulation and post-regulation - coming from lost leads. In several of those games, whereas the opposition mounted comebacks against the Devils and did not wither when they were down in the scoreboard, the Devils often would start periods tied or down by one but would play like they were down 3 or 4. The recent losses in Calgary and Edmonton both had third period performances that you would expect to see from a non-playoff team in March. Back in October when the Devils botched leads for losses for all but two games at home, the lack of a response to a bad event like a goal against or a poor shift was consistent and worrying. Enough that it makes one wonder what in the world is John Hynes and his staff saying and doing at intermission, on the bench, after these losses, and in practice. Just as coaching is about putting players in a position to succeed, it is about motivation and preparation and you cannot tell me Hynes and his staff are doing the best possible job in those respects.

It is not all on the coaches. Where are the leaders on this team? After these bad losses - and these have mostly been bad losses - the team is unhappy but more sad than resolved or even angry. Again, I am not in the room and for all I know, Greene is not a yeller or a big voice. Fine. Suffice it to say, getting really mad and flipping out is not often inspiring or motivating. (This also applies to Hynes’ cool demeanor on the bench; it is just how he is.) As a captain of the team, he very well has a voice. The legendary Stevens commanded the room; when he spoke, people listened. Is Greene speaking? Are the others listening? If so, then why is the team still faltering at the “little details” such as moving the puck out of their own zone or playing as if there is communication in either zone? If not, then what is his value as a leader, much less as a captain of the team? Talking to the refs about calls is not exactly a lot.

That I am asking these kind of questions is an issue in of itself. I appreciate the growth of stats in hockey as I think the romantic concepts of leadership, chemistry, intangibles, and so forth are not so important as to explain what is happening on the ice or what makes one player better than the other. I am not saying there is no impact, just that it is not as significant. A player with a great character who posts a 40 xGF% is not a player I want on the team. A player who may have the charisma of a USB port who posts a 60 xGF% is a player I do want. The 2019-20 Devils have been more than just your regular bad team. It is a team that has added considerable offensive talent but has become a less offensive team. It is a team that has plenty of NHL experience (three forwards does not undercut what the other 19 men have on the active roster) but approach some situations as if they all just entered the league. It is a team that does not regularly respond to being down a goal like their opponents have done to them. There are plenty of poor metrics and they all point to real issues that the organization has to correct. How the team has failed brings up the other stuff like leadership. That I am at least willing to write about it and speak to it on Garden State of Hockey means I think this is also an issue. I did not think so much of it in the other four seasons of Greene as a captain. But, again, this is different and it is another issue to add to the seemingly growing list of issues with the 2019-20 Devils.

Your Take

The summary of all of this is that Greene has played much better than he has been in recent seasons in 5-on-5 hockey, the penalty kill is not so hot so not many Devils look good there, and I question Greene’s leadership on a team that seemingly crashed into a ditch and spins more of its wheels than trying to get out of said ditch. The on-ice play is a pleasant surprise. The possible leadership is an unpleasant surprise. I leave it to you to decide how to feel about Greene provided that he is not coming off an amazing or awful afternoon in Vancouver yesterday. What do you make of Greene’s season so far? Will he keep up his excellent 5-on-5 on ice rates? Will the PK improve and, by extension, Greene’s performances there? How do you regard Greene as a leader? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ captain, Andy Greene, in the comments. Thank you for reading.