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The Devils's Andy Greene Problem

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Andy Greene is at the level that a normal player would be occasionally scratched. Given his his tenure, his PK role, and the “C” ... how likely/important is it that he gets time off in 2019-20.

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Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

I LOVE Andy Greene. Really, I do. To answer Gerard’s question, he’s one of my favorite Devils of all time. He was part of the best PK pairing in the analytics era and at his peak (2012-2014) GAR had him as the 3rd best defender in the NHL behind only Giordano and Vlasic. In addition to being an excellent, supremely underrated player, he is also a perfect role model and leader for a young team — an attribute which earned him his captaincy.

But his performance is a problem now.

Headed into last year I argued he was fine in 2018, and in the beginning of this past season, I said he and Severson revived each others’ careers. As the season wore on, however, Greene’s age showed. I don’t take back what I said in either situation — but aging sometimes hits you like a brick. Father time has come for Andy Greene he isn’t going anywhere.

A few weeks ago, I was working on a GAR projection model. I want to keep it simple so I only used a player’s age and recent history (past 3 seasons). You can see an example of it used here on Colton Sissons in the wake of his new contract. I envision it functioning largely like Dom Luszczyszyn’s. Using this method (which I reserve the right to improve upon later) these are the projected GARs for the Devils blueline next year.

GAR/82 via Evolving-Hockey

As you can see, Andy Greene is projected to be the worst defender on the Devils roster and only slightly above replacement-level. It’s important to note, though, that “replacement-level” is a vague, league-wide term. The “replacements” for the Devils (assuming Ty Smith starts) are Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller who are, according to the GAR, two of our most efficient defenders on the roster and significantly better than your average 7/8 defender.

I understand if the GAR-skeptics would balk a bit at this overall ranking (I have reservations about PK/Severson being below Carrick/Mueller as well), but the overall issue presented by these findings is largely undebatable — Andy Greene is likely to struggle mightily in his age-37 season, and ist’s very possible he falls past Carrick (25) and Mueller (24) in value, if he hasn’t already.

This brings us to confront a heartbreaking question for us Greene-lovers: Should the Devils consider using their captain on only a rotational basis?

There are two questions to ask here. 1) Is it worth it from a value perspective? 2) Can you sit a captain like Andy Greene.

With regards to the first question, even if you believe in GAR, it’s not as simple as just counting GAR. Andy Greene has a very specific role on this team as the primary stay-at-home defender. In general, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re good at offense or defense — 5 goals of value is 5 goals of value — but it IS helpful to have specialties in situations where specific things (in this case, preventing goals) are desired more than others (scoring goals). The two scenarios I can envision this mattering are 1) the penalty kill, and 2) when leading.

On the penalty kill, Greene is absolutely important. Carrick, Butcher, and Smith have no recent NHL PK history, but among the other 5, Greene leads the Devils in SH_GAR/60 (penalty kill value per hour) over the last 3 years (+0.374). Severson (+0.279), Subban (+0.054) and Sami Vatanen (+0.033) are also positives in the area. Last season, Vatanen (+0.768), Greene (+0.526), and Severson (+0.497) were all pretty good and Subban (-1.236) was very not. Not only is Greene one of (if not THE) best defender on this lineup in penalty killing, but he’s also the only lefty that does it. Unless Mueller can suddenly figure out the kill, we stand to see a significant drop-off in that area. Greene is worth about 2 goals a year on the PK and there’s no obvious candidate for replacement so it could be as much as 3-4 goals. That said, it’s possible that we could withstand that with, probably, the best assembly of penaly-killing forwards in the NHL. Also, 3-4 goals still wouldn’t add up to the overall GAR difference we observed in the beginning of this piece. So is there somewhere else we can make up the difference?

There’s a much less convincing argument for using Greene at even strength when we “need defense.” According to Natural stat trick, Greene actually cost the Devils 0.2 expected goals per hour when leading. He was better when looking at actual goals, but Mueller is better in both metrics. This is unsurprising since Greene’s RAPM xGA/60 in all situations is second worst on the team behind Vatanen — though, interestingly, his xGF/60 rating is highest on the team, by FAR ... #OffensiveDynamo? Regardless, the point is that at even strength, there is no real situation in which Greene’s talents as currently utilized are more helpful than, say Mueller’s.

It’s worth noting here that I’m not advocating for Greene sitting most of the time, or even a lot of the time. I’m saying that it’s fair to argue if there will be games in which Greene is not one of the 6 best defenders we can play. I would say that back-to-back games are a good time to sit a 37 year old. If we have offensive injuries like last year, having someone more capable of driving play is probably beneficial. There will be games. Which brings up the next issue ... can you sit the captain?

First of all, does this even happen? I asked Twitter if an active team captain had every been healthy-scratched. The guys that were mentioned more than once were Chris Clark, Craig Rivet, and Derek MacKenzie. Rivet was waived after struggling to find the ice as Buffalo’s captain. Chris Clark saw playing time decreased severely (16 minutes per game to 11) and was ultimately traded as captain — it’s not clear to me if he was a healthy scratch, though it was rumored. According to NHL Injury Viz, In Mackenzie’s last season as captain, he was injured for 5 games, and played 75. It’s possible he was scratched the other two (someone can check me on that), but even if he was it’s not exactly a “rotational” basis. He did, however, hand off the captaincy to Barkov last season before the year started.

What can we learn from these anecdotes? First: it’s quite rare for captains to sit and it’s worth noting that in all of the situations I found it happened — the player was on the team less than 5 years. Greene has only been captain for 4 seasons, but has been a Devil his entire 13-year career. Second: it does happen, though. All of those were players at the end of their career that were either expensive or not one of the best options for the team. 3) Greene should probably hand off the captaincy.

That last example with Derek Mackenzie the coaches and Barkov talked about how much DMac helped him learn through his leadership, but that it was time to pass the torch. It was extremely respectful and deferential. This need not be a slight to Greene, it can be a tribute. Greene is 37 years old and entering the final year of his contract. If he does re-sign it will be for much less and he will not be a key member of this team. A new captain is coming, and having Greene personally hand it off to someone he will be able to watch grow in the first year with the “C” is respectful to the player, the team, and the letter.

With that in mind, let’s try something new on and see if it fits...

(Elsa/Getty Images) ... obviously, slightly altered.

What do you guys think about Greene entering next year? What should his role be? Should he ever sit? Should he keep the “C”? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below!