Mike Green at a career crossroads

A player ahead of his time in his early days with the Capitals, Mike Green has refined the defensive aspects of his game as a Red Wing. With his name now mentioned in trade rumors -- to Washington, Toronto and elsewhere -- what does his future hold? Steven King/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ten years before he was one of the most coveted hired guns at the NHL trade deadline, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green was a "Young Gun."

That was the nickname for his generation of Washington Capitals players during their Alex Ovechkin-led "Rock The Red" resurgence, dominating the Southeast Division and exponentially increasing the size of their fan base with an electric atmosphere at the arena created by electrifying players. Chief among them was Green, a 22-year-old defenseman who created offense like few could from the blue line. He scored 31 goals in 2008-09, the highest total for a defenseman in the past 24 seasons, which included an NHL-record eight straight games with a goal. He accomplished this in just 68 appearances.

He was a rock star, and not just because he played the drums in a Capitals' hard rock hype video and sported a Mohawk for the playoffs.

But he was also one of the league's most maligned players -- a defenseman that few endorsed for his defense. Back then, if a back-liner scored 70 points in a season -- as Green did in back-to-back campaigns, from 2008-10 -- it was assumed that said defenseman had to also be a defensive liability. It's a reputation that may have contributed to Green being the runner-up for the Norris Trophy in back-to-back years -- losing to Zdeno Chara and Duncan Keith -- and being left off the Canadian Olympic team in 2010.

"Yeah, I did get criticized a lot," Green told ESPN, with a laugh.

In retrospect, Green was before his time.

Today's NHL covets puck-moving defensemen who join the offensive rush in the attacking zone, and each new wave of prospects -- from Shayne Gostisbehere to Zach Werenski to Rasmus Dahlin -- is lauded for the kind of play at which Green excelled.

"He would join the attack. He'd stay in the attack. And sometimes he'd never leave the attack," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who coached Green in Washington for one season. "Ten years ago, maybe we frowned on that. He probably didn't get the credit he deserved."

Ten years ago, we also couldn't quantify it like we do today. Consider this: In Oct. 2008, the influential Capitals site Japers' Rink ran a post called "A Brief Intro To The Corsi Number," an education about an emerging analytic tabulated by hockey bloggers that measured shot attempts as a proxy for puck possession. Today, shot attempts can be found on the NHL's official site stats page.

Green was one of the first test cases for Corsi. His defenders argued that if he's possessing the puck and helping the Capitals dominate offensively, that was as effective as any defensive play on the other side of the ice. No, he wasn't Zdeno Chara in his own end -- "I didn't play too much defense, to be honest," Green said in 2017 -- but the opponents can't score if they don't have the puck.

In the two years Green was a Norris finalist, he had a Corsi for percentage of 57.8 and 57.3, in both cases possessing the puck at a much higher rate than his teammates.

"I think his style is more the way the game is. He was ahead of the curve," said Trotz.

Does Green think he was underappreciated back in the day?

"I can't look back and say one way or another. That game has evolved. In the last five or six years, the game's gotten so much faster. People, fans, the league now focuses on different things. And in that sense, I've had to adjust my own game," he said.

Mike Green might not be the dynamic player he was. But he might be an all-around better one.

At 32, a beard covers the baby face that was printed on posters in Washington. Green's an elder statesman in the Detroit locker room. Not, like, Henrik Zetterberg old. But still hockey old.

"I'm not an old guy, but I'm older in the league. I have an obligation to help these younger guys. Give them some guidance. I don't want to put too much into their heads -- there's a reason in they're in the NHL, because of that skill set. But just trying to coach them through some of the things that I've experienced in my career. Not necessarily 'don't make the same mistakes' but more like finding out how to adjust better," he said.

He's like an older brother in the room, but he's a father off the ice -- to a 2-year-old boy named Axel.

"He's starting to be the age when he can come along [to the rink]. We brought him there the other day, and he just started shaking with excitement when he came out. So now I'm like, 'OK, he needs to come around and be a little more involved. He's starting to understand now," said Green.

"You mature. You grow up. I've got a little boy now, and different responsibilities. As far as the approach to the game, that's the same. That hasn't changed."

But Detroit has changed him. Green has spent the past three seasons playing for coach Jeff Blashill, with an increased emphasis on defense.

"He's gotten better over the years defensively. I think the one thing we've tried to concentrate with him is to skate forward defensively as much as possible. So, get up, skate, lateral gap, and end up where you're not necessarily backing up, you're using your great skating ability to close gaps as quick as you can," Blashill told the Red Wings' website at the start of the season. "I think it's made him a much better defender. But he also has to attack."

Green's points this season are split evenly between even strength and the power play (13 each).

"The key is finding that balance. The offense and defense. Playing in Detroit, they really focus on the defensive side of the puck, and it's really helped my game. I'm grateful for that," he said.

He's also grateful for having spent these past three seasons with a storied Original Six franchise.

"I don't think you can compare it to anything else. The history ... walking in the dressing room, with the old players and the old captains, the Stanley Cups they've won. It's really special," he said. "I love it in Detroit. It's a great organization. I hope I stay."

Green is in the last year of a three-year, $18-million deal that carries full trade protection, which is a significant detail considering that Green's expected to be coveted ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

His future is something he's tried to avoid considering, focusing on a Red Wings' season that saw him earn All-Star Game honors with 26 points in 48 games. But in the digital age, avoiding that speculation is difficult when the speculation is being constantly fed to you.

"Nowadays, a notification comes to your phone, so you hear about it whether you'd like to or not," said Green. "I think in this league, there's always uncertainty. But I've been around long enough. I know what to expect. It's why I don't think about it all that much. I understand the process. When decisions are ready to be made, I'll be ready to make them."

Decision time is coming for Mike Green.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could use Mike Green, as a puck-moving veteran for an area of need. The New York Islanders could use Mike Green, both to juice their power play and to give them a second point-producing defenseman besides Nick Leddy.

Many teams could use Mike Green. Including the Washington Capitals.

The scuttlebutt was inescapable at the All-Star Game: That a reunion with the Capitals would just make too much sense. GM Brian MacLellan is reportedly a fan. Trotz called him a top-end defenseman who has "refined the defensive part of his game." The Capitals could use added depth on their defense, whose third pairing is currently Brooks Orpik and Madison Bowey. They thought Kevin Shattenkirk was the answer last season. Green is a more known commodity.

Another NHL All-Star wholeheartedly endorsed the concept of a Mike Green return to the Capitals -- Alex Ovechkin.

"It's nice if he would be back in Washington, but I don't know if it's possible or not, so we'll see. He knows how to pass the puck and he knows how to shoot the puck. He's a complete player," Ovechkin said. "He's a great player. Very happy for him to make All-Star. I wish all the best to him and we'll see what's going to happen in the future."

Ovechkin is 32 now, his hair predominantly gray and his goal-scoring prowess still unequaled. Nick Backstrom is 30, and still remains one of the NHL's most underappreciated two-way players. These are the only other "Young Guns" still remaining in the Capitals' arsenal.

The notion that an older, wiser Mike Green could return to help Washington do what his generation of Capitals could never do -- play for a championship, let alone win a Stanley Cup -- is the stuff hockey fables are written about.

The question is if the opportunity presented itself, would Green want to take part in it?

"I'll be blatantly honest: Sometimes things don't go as well as you want them to and you can kind of get kicked down and you're faced with adversity," Green said of his time in D.C., while not tipping his hand. "I think that was great, honestly. I think it gave me an opportunity to grow and make me a better player."