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Capitals' Green has become Norris-worthy [The Buffalo News, N.Y.]
[April 12, 2009]

Capitals' Green has become Norris-worthy [The Buffalo News, N.Y.]

(Buffalo News (NY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Apr. 12--It's very easy and certainly not fair to look back and say the Buffalo Sabres made a mistake back in 2004 when Mike Green was available in the first round and they selected Drew Stafford with the 13th pick overall. In fact, seven teams picked defensemen before Green was chosen 29th overall.

Stafford was a good pick. He became a 20-goal scorer this season and can score 30 when he learns how to show up for 82 games rather than, say, 60. But there's no ignoring how Green blossomed into the dominant defenseman the Sabres have needed for years. In fact, he's my pick to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.

Buffalo can take comfort knowing Washington wasn't sure what it had in Green, who was drafted in the year Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were picked 1-2. He started his rookie season with the Capitals, spent two months of hard labor in AHL Hershey, and returned for the stretch run.

He had a goal and two assists and was minus-8 in 22 games his first season. He had two goals and 10 assists (minus-10) the next year. Last season, he began taking off with 18 goals and 38 assists (plus-6), growing with his teammates around him. This year, he had 31 goals and 42 assists (plus-25) in 67 games going into the season finale.

It took four seasons, but look what the Caps have now. Green had nine more goals than the Sabres' defensemen combined. His 73 points would have led Buffalo in scoring. He had 18 goals on the power play, where the Sabres are forced to use four forwards because they lack defensemen who can pound the puck from the point.

That's what the Sabres need to remember next season when they make a decision about whether to keep Tyler Myers, their potential tower of terror. Big T has grown an inch since September, when he arrived for a little look-see in training camp, and now stands at a Zdeno Chara- like 6-foot-8. He was a dominant defenseman during the World Junior Championships and continues to improve.

Green never scored more than 14 goals at any level, other than youth hockey, before he reached the NHL. His 31 goals this year were tied for 11th all-time among defensemen in a season. Paul Coffey, Bobby Orr, Doug Wilson and Kevin Hatcher scored more in one year.

Myers, 19, isn't a big scorer, but he has the hands, feet and head to become a great defenseman. The Sabres can either keep him next season or send him back to junior. Get him up here, get him playing, live with his mistakes, nurture his development at the NHL level and see what happens.

Really, what would they have to lose? Green unseats Nicklas Lidstrom, who won the Norris six times in the last seven years, as my pick for top defenseman. Here are my picks for the other awards: Hart Trophy (most valuable player): Ovechkin, Caps. The voting figures to be tight this year between Ovechkin and Malkin, his countryman and rival. Malkin skated into the weekend leading the Penguins in scoring. Ovechkin had a slow start and still had 55 goals going into the weekend.

Vezina Trophy (top goaltender): Tim Thomas, Bruins. He led the Bruins to their best season since 1971-72, when they won the Stanley Cup. He led the league in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.933) while winning 35 games, fifth-most in the league.

Calder Trophy (top rookie): Steve Mason, Blue Jackets. He was a major reason Columbus reached the postseason for the first time in history. He won 33 games, was second among all goalies with a 2.23 GAA and tied for seventh with a .918 SP. Bobby Ryan was terrific in Anaheim. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos was great after a late start.

Selke Trophy (top defensive forward): Mike Richards, Flyers. Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk will be on everybody's short list, but Richards gets the nod this season. He's against the opposition's top lines at home, tough to match up against on the road, and leads the league with seven shorthanded goals.

Jack Adams (top coach): Todd McLellan, Sharks. I'm usually reluctant to give it to first-year coaches, but he won the tough Western Conference ahead of his former team, Detroit. That's an accomplishment. He had to win over a roster stocked with talented veterans, which is not easy for a rookie coach.

Lady Byng (sportsmanship): Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings. He's the most complete player in the league, gets into the tough areas to score and kills penalties. The quiet, classy center neared the 100-point mark while taking only 11 minor penalties.

Pyatt loses fiancee The Canucks entered the final weekend without winger Taylor Pyatt, who had been granted an indefinite leave of absence after his fiancee, Carly Bragnalo, was killed in a car accident April 2 in Jamaica.

Pyatt left the team the day after the accident, which happened while she was on vacation with her family. It marks the second tragedy to hit the Canucks in less than a year. Last May, defenseman Luc Bourdon was killed in a motorcycle accident.

"It puts everything into perspective," Alex Burrows, Pyatt's road roommate and close friend, told reporters in Vancouver. "When I heard the news you get an empty feeling inside of you. You can't take anything for granted in life. You never know what can happen." Pyatt, 27, began dating Bragnalo when they were teen-agers. Both were from Thunder Bay, Ont. and planned to marry in their hometown in August.

Not giving up on Gabby Marian Gaborik's career in Minnesota appears all but over, but General Manager Doug Risebrough isn't giving up. Risebrough is prepared to send the franchise's first-ever pick a short-term contract offer in an effort to keep him around.

Gaborik turned down a long-term deal for about $8 million per season during training camp, which was a mistake. Risebrough is hoping a new proposal would be inviting because it would a) secure the winger's short-term future while the league overcomes problems with the economy and b) get him back to the bargaining table sooner.

"In the past, it's been difficult," Risebrough said, "but circumstances have changed." It's a smart play, but it appears Gaborik wants to break ties with the organization and hit the open market. He's a risk given his injury problems, but he's a top player when healthy. Only 27, he could be a good fit for a team such as Los Angeles, which needs help and has plenty of room under the cap.

A year too late Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said he had been haunted by more than a dozen letters he received from friends of late owner John McConnell, who was dying of cancer last spring when Columbus failed to make the playoffs.

Hitchcock received the letters after McConnell died April 25, asking that he guide them into the postseason for the first time in history. The Blue Jackets clinched a spot Wednesday when franchise player Rick Nash, who gave McConnell's eulogy, scored late in regulation en route to a shootout win over Chicago.

"There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about him," Hitchcock said. "And I've been thinking about him a lot the last week or so, as we've gotten closer to this." Quotable Leafs coach Ron Wilson, poking his head out of the dressing room and seeing Brad May two hours before the winger played his 1,000th game: "Brad, can you chart faceoffs tonight?" Around the boards --Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was on the short list of candidates to coach Canada in the world championships. Hockey Canada boss Steve Yzerman holds Ruff in high regard and will likely ask him to help Mike Babcock behind the bench in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

--Tonawanda native Kevin Quick returned to the Lightning last week for his fifth professional game. He played four straight games in January before going back to Norfolk of the AHL. He played nearly 12 minutes and had a shot on goal Thursday against Washington.

--Detroit skated into the weekend with Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall among the top eight defensemen in scoring. It hasn't happened since 1974-75, when Montreal's Guy Lapointe was third, Larry Robinson fifth and Serge Savard tied for sixth.

--Edmonton is expected to dangle a defenseman this summer in an effort to beef up its forwards. The most likely candidate is veteran Tom Gilbert, a solid player who has four years and $17 million left on his contract. The 6-3, 210-pounder had 44 points and was plus-6 for a bad Oilers team. He would look good in blue and gold.

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