Defenseman Andy Greene has made the journey from undrafted free agent to captain of the New Jersey Devils in their season of major change.
NEWARK, N.J. — After practice on a rainy, windy Wednesday afternoon in Newark Andy Greene takes his spot in the corner of the Devils locker room, by the door, an empty seat to his right. He removes his jersey and immediately puts his hat on backwards, covering his receding hairline. He unfurls the mountain of white tape on his elbow pads and rolls it up methodically in a ball. Spotting a garbage can across the room, Greene tosses the ball ... and scores.
“Rain man!” an equipment staffer screams upon the swish. Greene pumps his arm in celebration.
Things have been going well for Andy Greene of late. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Devils before last season. He was named captain in the beginning of October. He’s got a seven-week-old baby son at home, Colton James, and his “champ” of a wife, Rachel. With all the change in Devilsland—new coach (John Hynes), new general manager (Ray Shero), new owner (Josh Harris), new just about everything—Greene, 33, is the calming force who has helped the team to a surprising and solid 6-4-1 start.
Not bad for an undrafted free agent who almost became a physical education teacher.
Greene was ignored by NHL teams during his draft year (2006) despite tallying 114 points over four seasons at Miami University of Ohio. Surprising? Yes. But the 5’ 11”, 190-pound defenseman knew he could play.
“I was always betting on myself a little bit, growing up,” Greene tells SI.com. “You could say I went under the radar. [But] I knew I was a decent player. After my freshman year, guys who you played with or against for a year, you see them getting NHL contracts, you think, ‘if they can do it, I have a shot.’ That’s the way I’ve approached it. I’ve come this far, let’s keep going, see how far [I] can take this.”
It’s an approach that served him well in college. He was a captain at Miami, All-CCHA, All-American. Coach Enrico Blasi knew that Greene was the type of guy who could take his program to new heights.
“We kind of felt that if we got Andy, we could build around him,” Blasi tells SI.com. “We [felt] like he was going to be one of our captains right away. That’s the first impression you get. ‘Oh wow, this guy is pretty genuine.’ That’s why everyone says he’ll be a good captain.”
Greene, along with future Los Angeles Kings playoff hero Alec Martinez, helped led the RedHawks to the CCHA title in 2006, capping a career where he was named team MVP twice, and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in '06.
And although he wasn’t drafted—Blasi thought that Greene got caught in a league-wide transition from big, bruising defenders to quicker, smaller guys—he did have one important admirer.
“A lot of it had to do with (former Devils president/GM/sometime coach) Lou [Lamoriello],” Blasi said of Greene’s choice to sign with New Jersey. “Nobody else.”
Greene latched on with the Devils full-time in 2007, quickly becoming a top defenseman entrusted with big minutes. When New Jersey went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, he averaged 22 minutes per game. But things have changed, and the Devils haven’t been to the playoffs since. No more Martin Brodeur, no more Zach Parise. Multiple coaching changes; no more Lou, no left-wing lock. Yet, as he does with most things, Greene is taking it all in stride.
“I’m excited,” he says. “I’ve been saying that since Day one. This is no disrespect to anyone who was here before. But change was needed. I didn’t know what [type of] change was needed. But I think we”re on the right path now. I’m really looking forward to growing with this team and becoming a good team for many years to come.”
Change has come, and it has been jarring for fans who can't imagine the Devils without their old standbys. As the new captain, Greene has been the one who has steadied the club as it makes its transition.
“Andy is Andy,” Cory Schneider tells SI.com. “He’s steady. He’s just a really calming presence. He hasn’t changed a whole lot. He’s always been the same guy. On the ice, he’s still the same player. He’s not trying to change the way he’s played to get to this point. It’s a good thing, because he’s a done a lot right.”
Adds former Ducks forward Kyle Palmieri, one of the newcomers: “It’s tough sometimes, with all the management changes, all the new faces, to reel everybody in,” he says. “But he’s done a great job so far. He has a lot of respect from everybody in our locker room.”
Greene is a lead-by-example guy, but vocal when he needs to be. He defers to other veterans—Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac’ and Schneider—but is forceful when its required. There are some new responsibilities that come with being captain, especially dealing with the on-ice officials, but the key in his mind is saying the same.
“I really tried to concentrate on being the same guy,” Greene says. “That’s what I’ve learned. I’ve gotten this far being who I am. I’m not going to change who I am now and try to be someone [I’m] not.”
Greene sought out advice, mainly from former Devils captain and good friend Bryce Salvador, who retired before the season. But Greene also wanted to do things his way.
“He sent me some nice words, but at the same time, I wanted to feel it out myself,” Greene says.
Greene is not a flashy defenseman, and he won’t put up a ton of points. He won’t manhandle opposing forwards or lay out big hits like former Devils icon Scott Stevens, who wore the C from 1992 to 2004. But he gets the job done. It’s a lesson he's been passing on to teammate Adam Larsson, the No. 4 pick in 2011 (ahead of Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Brodin) who emerged last year from a period of struggle and signed a six-year, $25 million contract this summer.
“People forget he came in as an 18 year old,” Greene says of Larsson. “Obviously [Connor] McDavid and [Jack] Eichel [are] making it look easy. [But] there’s not many guys who can dominate from the start. He’s been steadily growing for the last couple years here.”
The Devils have an interesting mix of veterans and young kids. Schneider is one of the best goalies in the league. Greene leads a solid, if unspectacular, defense. Cammalleri and Zajac add punch up front, and early on, the power-play ranks in the league’s top 10. Youngsters like defensemen Eric Gelinas and Damon Severson have shown lots of promise.
Getting to the playoffs on a regular basis like the Devils used to do in the good old days of their semi-dynasty (three Cups between 1995 and 2003) might still be a few years away. But a core is being built. Greene’s leadership will help the team get there.
“I texted him the other day, ‘the ‘C’ looks good on your jersey,’” Blasi says.
Devils fans think so, too.