Last season was frustrating for everyone on the Detroit Red Wings roster. After the 25-year playoff streak ended, 2018-19 marked the third straight season of finishing near the bottom of the standings as the franchise transitions into rebuild mode.
It was especially difficult for veteran defenseman Mike Green.
The 33-year-old was coming off a major neck surgery. Then he missed training camp and the beginning of the season due to a virus attacking his liver. Green was cleared and played 43 games, and then the virus reactivated, and doctors shut him down in the beginning of March.
"Honestly, it was bizarre," Green said last month. "It was just weird."
"Just to look at our record with him and without him," teammate Dylan Larkin said. (The Red Wings were 20-19-4 with Green in the lineup. They went 12-21-6 in his absence.)
"He's a huge part of our locker room and a huge part of how we play," Larkin added. "It got to the point where we weren't concerned about hockey. We were concerned about his life. Not that he was dying, but his life after hockey, and if he was going to be OK. Seeing what he went through -- I hope no player would have to go through that."
Green dealt with a neck injury the past two years but battled through it. He then missed seven games in February 2018 -- right around the time the team considered trading the defenseman for picks. Green underwent surgery on his cervical spine in March 2018.
"The neck surgery went well," Green said. "And I was right on track to be ready for last season. I got back into the gym at the right time. But I did push myself pretty hard to get back into shape. I was pushing myself hard because I needed to have a good season. I kind of wore myself out a bit."
Before training camp, Green felt like he needed to sleep at all hours of the day. Any time he exerted himself, he became exhausted within minutes.
At first, he thought it was related to the neck surgery and not being able to get a full offseason of normal training.
"I tried to push through," Green said. "And it just killed me."
Blood work revealed a virus running through his body. An infectious disease specialist explained to Green that he had an enlarged liver and high viral loads. The symptoms were similar to those of mono.
Green was away from the team for nearly a month. "He was pretty wiped out," Larkin said. "He would come down to the rink when he was feeling up for it. He's such a nice guy, he felt like he should be there, even though he didn't have to be."
By early October, Green began skating again, and he was cleared to play by the end of the month (though he was instructed to use his own water bottle). "I felt good," he said. "Then we had these big road trips, and games piled together, and it just drained me. I couldn't recover. I got tested again, and the viral loads were back. I tried playing a little longer, but my body wasn't performing."
That time, Green was "shut down completely." Doctors instructed him not to walk, "not to do anything, just rest," Green said. He didn't have much of an appetite. "And if I did eat, it wasn't coming out right," he said. Green lost between 12 and 15 pounds.
"Even at the worst times, I never thought that this could be it for my career," Green said. "Maybe, subconsciously, I did. Maybe because of my age. But I did as much research as I could, and I knew I was going to get over it. It wasn't life-threatening. Honestly, the s---tiest thing about it was that the only thing I needed to do was rest. They said these things can take three months, six months, a year. I was like, 'Well, I can't have this be a year.'"
By mid-June, Green started to train again -- walking, jogging, ramping it up slowly. It wasn't until late July that he really felt better. He has been a full participant for the Red Wings since the start of camp this year, and he feels as healthy as ever.
Green's contract and $5.375 million cap hit expire at the end of this season. He loves it in Detroit but is firmly aware of his place on the team.
"The game is getting a lot younger," Green said. "The value is in potential, as opposed to experience. As an older guy, you need to prove yourself at a high level in this league. Because it is competitive, and the demand to win now is extremely high. You just can't hold on to the fact that you're an older guy and have that experience level. That doesn't make you secure."
Larkin notes that especially with Niklas Kronwall retiring, Green plays an important role for the Red Wings "because we have so many young guys who need to play big roles." Green said he has enjoyed getting to know 2019 first-round pick Moritz Seider -- 15 years his junior -- during training camp and giving him a few tips since they are both right-handed defensemen.
Green said that lately he has begun thinking about what he'd like to do after hockey. It will probably involve something with mentoring kids. He doesn't have his own foundation, but he has partnered with many youth-focused charities. As for when he'll retire, Green said: "I want to play for as long as I can at the level needed. [I'll retire] when the negatives outweigh the positives for the whole picture -- family, myself, my body -- or there isn't room for me anymore, one of the two."
It has been an interesting time in Red Wings history since Green landed in Detroit. He arrived for the end of the playoff streak, and the team hasn't been very good for most of his time. "We've had some transitions where some of the older guys have retired, and we're trying to expedite the young guys taking over," he said. "It's all part of the process, the mentality and behind the scenes of building a team. But in a short period of time, or at least quicker than most people think, there will be a winning hockey club here. That's because I see the degree of work ethic this group has." Green, like many players in Detroit, expressed optimism that things might turn around a bit more quickly now that GM Steve Yzerman is in the fold.
Green finished with this: "Listen, I believe in miracles. There's a great chance of winning here. You look at teams like St. Louis last year. They were in last place. Look at Tampa -- prior to their runs in the playoffs, they didn't make the playoffs the year before. So whether you want to call those miracles or what, anything can happen is what i'm trying to say. I believe in this organization, this team, these guys. We all want to win."
Emptying the notebook
I asked Green what he thinks when he looks back on his time in Washington. He began his career with the Caps in 2005 and was part of some excellent regular-season teams that never realized expectations in the playoffs. He left for the Red Wings in 2015. "I think of a young group of guys that were elite players but didn't have a whole lot of guidance or mentorship," he said. "We were these young guns that ran around and played the game, had fun. We were talented but didn't understand the culture and mentality it takes to really win. I think it's showed up there now. They won, and everything has to fall into place for you to win as a club. But it took a lot longer than it needed to with the talent, organization, ownership, management that was there."
Green cheered for Washington during its Stanley Cup run (especially since the Red Wings were not in the playoffs). "I was rooting for them to win because of the roller coaster that they had been on over the years," he said. "I was happy -- not only for the guys that were still there -- but for the city, for the fans. They were wanting it so bad 10 years ago. Actually, probably longer than that."
The St. Louis Blues will visit the White House on Oct. 15. I'm told that once the team received the invitation, there wasn't much of a discussion about whether to go. The team views it as an honor and a rite of passage as champions. The Blues will be making a special trip to Washington; it doesn't coincide with a visit to the Capitals. They tacked the trip on the end of a road trip, following a game at the Islanders on Oct. 14. It's interesting to note that the Blues have the most Canadian-heavy roster in the league. In fact, there are only three Americans on the team right now: Zach Sanford, MacKenzie MacEachern and Justin Faulk (who likely won't make the trip because he wasn't on the team last season).
I asked Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford this week what he thought of his goalie situation. "I feel good, really good because I thought I was going to lose [Casey] DeSmith on waivers," he said with a smile. "And now we have depth. We have [Emil] Larmi, the guy we signed from Finland. He's a young goalie we really like a lot. We've got [Alex] D'Orio, who just came out of juniors. He's playing pro now. To have that extra depth in goal if something goes wrong is important. Or there's the possibility of someone getting into goaltending trouble and paying one of those guys what he's worth."
Starter Matt Murray, 25, will become a restricted free agent this summer. I asked Rutherford whether he is concerned about Murray's health and if it's why the team hasn't worked out a long-term deal yet.
"No, I'm not concerned about anything with Matt," Rutherford said. "He's in a good place. He went through a lot, OK. There's nobody who understands this -- I don't even understand it, but I'll speak to it -- but it's the type of pressure he was under the first two years. So in '16, he carried us all three series. And then in '17, he got hurt, and [Marc-Andre] Fleury won the first two series, and Murray won the last two. So the pressure of that, winning those back-to-back Cups at such a young age. And then we have to move a goalie out [in the expansion draft], so Fleury leaves. He's alone now. He doesn't have that veteran guy to work with and be there, knowing that he's there.
"So now he's the No. 1 goalie, he's adjusting to that, and then he loses his dad. And he's going through all those things that nobody understands. Remember, he's still fairly young. He's gone through those things. He's learned from them, and he's in a really good place."
The big question: Is scoring going to continue to trend up this season?
There have been gradual increases in scoring each of the past four seasons. Last season, the NHL averaged more than six goals per game for the first time since 2005-06.
Through 33 games this season, we're at 6.22 goals per game, up from 6.02 last season.
I asked Rutherford this week if he expects another scoring uptick: "I think it should continue to rise," the Pittsburgh GM said. "The goalies got better and better. The equipment got bigger, the players didn't have as much to shoot at. And now the players are coming at them from a different way. They're always looking for an open guy, trying to get the goalie moving laterally, trying to make the goalie work a little bit harder. And it's opened the scoring up, and I'd expect it would continue."
Three stars of the week
With four goals and eight points, the Rangers' de facto captain has the most points through the first two games of a season since Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96. Can we talk about how adorable this moment was? All class.
New season, same story. Gibson is a brick wall shouldering the load for a team that is in transition. Gibson turned away 67 of 69 combined shots against the Coyotes and Sharks to lead the Ducks to a 2-0 start.
3. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs Just call him Mr. Opening night. The 22-year-old American has scored in each of his four season openers to begin his career, totaling eight goals. Matthews has five goals in his first three games to open 2019-20.
What we liked this past week
Something we're excited about becoming a league-wide trend: NHL teams adopting service dogs in training. The Washington Capitals are the latest. Meet Captain, who, indeed, is a very good boy and has already bonded with the Caps' other captain:
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To my beautiful wife for doing everything in her power to bring our beautiful little baby girl in to this world, never have I met a more determined or stronger person than you. It hasn't been easy but after the rain finally our little rainbow arrived. Love you both more than I could ever imagine.
The yellow Labrador will be with Washington for 14-16 months for basic and socialization training.
An update on another good boy: Barclay, who joined the Blues in December -- as they hit the nadir, before their turnaround -- was supposed to go into service this season but will stay with the team a bit longer than expected.
Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, lost their son as a stillbirth a month before his due date in March 2018. Congrats to the couple on the birth of their daughter.
Mike Babcock referring to Tavares' crying baby as "fired up" is quality hockey content.
What we didn't like this past week
Dallas Stars defenseman Roman Polak was chasing a puck in the corner and took an awkward crash into the boards on Thursday. He had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher and transported to a nearby hospital.
The crowd fell silent, and Bruins players respectfully took a knee as trainers attended to Polak. The discussion on the NESN broadcast, however, was disturbing.
"That looked self-induced, didn't it?" color commentator Andy Brickley said.
Replied veteran play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards: "Has a little bit of bad hockey karma."
Polak's agent, Allan Walsh, ripped Edwards on Twitter:
Per the Stars, Polak suffered a small fracture of his sternum and will be evaluated again in a week.
Games of the week
Everyone wants a chance to take down the champs. The big, heavy Blues take on perhaps the NHL's most explosive offense. This one should be juicy.
The Golden Knights are looking like the juggernauts of the West (or, at the very least, the class of the Pacific Division). The Bruins are that same dangerous team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final four months ago.
It's a rematch of last spring's second-round playoff series, a sweep by the Canes. The defensive-minded Islanders will surely be looking for revenge.
Quote of the week
"I'm disappointed for [our fans] to show up and waste their time and money to watch that."
-- New Sharks captain Logan Couture's blunt assessment after the Sharks fell to the Ducks 3-1, on Saturday. The Sharks have scored three goals in their first three games and are 0-3-0 for the second time in team history.