“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
-- Winston Churchill
From highly touted prospect (17th in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters in 2008) to prolific amateur (87 points in 73 regular season and playoff games for the London Knights in the OHL), to skilled apprentice (49 points in 77 games and a Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears), to upstart NHL rookie (first in games played among rookie defensemen in 2010-2011, fourth in points, second in assists, second in plus-minus, first in game-winning goals), to up-and-coming professional (one of eight NHL defensemen with at least 350 games, 40 goals, and 150 points over the last five seasons), Washington Capital defenseman John Carlson’s hockey career to date has been one of almost unbroken achievement.
Oh, and there was that whole World Juniors game-winning, gold medal-clinching goal thing, too (obligatory video follows)…
Last season, his fifth full season in the NHL, Carlson took a great leap forward, both in responsibility and performance. He led or ranked highly among the team’s defensemen in a number of categories:
- Games: 82 (1st/T-1st in NHL)
- Average ice time: 23:04 (1st/34th)
- Goals: 12 (1st/T-11th)
- Assists: 43 (1st/T-4th)
- Points: 55 (1st/T-5th)
- Power Play Goals: 3 (1st/T-26th)
- Power Play Assists: 13 (2nd/T-15th)
- Power Play Points: 16 (2nd/T-20th)
- Shorthanded Goals: 1 (1st/T-3rd)
- Shorthanded Time-On-Ice: 2:57 (1st/T-15th)
- Blocked Shots: 200 (1st/3rd)
- Takeaways: 41 (1st/T-17th)
It was good enough for Carlson to finish tenth in voting among defensemen for the NHL all-star team and tenth in voting for the Norris Trophy as outstanding defenseman.
It was something of a transition year for Carlson, less one of “prospect” or “developing youngster” than “top defenseman in waiting.” With Mike Green’s uncertainty with respect to his contract and whether the Capitals would be able to afford an extension for the free agent to be, Carlson’s role expanded into one in which he took over as a top-pair defenseman (with a new partner, Brooks Orpik, replacing longtime partner Karl Alzner), Green relegated to the third pair.
Carlson and Karlsson, John and Erik. Players in their first six seasons, age 25 or younger in season six, having played in at least 375 games, with at least 40 goals and at least 175 points. Sure, P.K. Subban would be right there, too, but for the fact that he has “only” 366 games played, but it is still a pretty short list on which Carlson finds himself for durability and production.
Last season, Carlson experienced a significant improvement in his possession numbers. In 2013-2014 his Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 48.1 percent, the lowest of his career at that time. Last season, he raised that number to 51.3, his best since the 2010-2011 season. Although the result might have been as much a case of a new coaching regime (his Corsi-for/Relative was still in negative territory (-0.2); numbers from war-on-ice.com), it was still a welcome result, especially for a player getting first pair minutes at 5-on-5.
There’s this old saying…”defense wins championships.” John Carlson had his own demonstration of the importance of defense last season. On the one hand, his offense was not particularly influential in terms of outcomes. The Caps were 23-12-5 in games in which he recorded at least one point (51 standings points in 40 games), 22-14-6 in games where he was held off the score sheet (50 points in 42 games). On the other hand, the Caps were 30-4-7 in games in which no goals were scored when he was on the ice, 15-22-4 in games in which he was on the ice for at least one goal. Seems he can go into the occasional weird funk in his own end; there were six times last year when he was on ice for a goal in three or more consecutive games.
The Big Question… Is John Carlson ready to step up to “elite” status among NHL defensemen?
The answer to this question needs to be prefaced with, “he will get his chances.” With the departure of Mike Green, Carlson is the Caps’ number one defenseman. He will get the number one power play ice time that he did not consistently get last season (he averaged 1:44/game compared to Green’s 2:45). His even-strength ice time might be distributed a bit differently; the forwards with which he skated the first and fourth most minutes were third-liners Joel Ward (477) and Eric Fehr (424), and his even-strength ice time was reasonable equal among those two, Nicklas Backstrom (469) and Alex Ovechkin (466).
Given the increased responsibility Carlson is likely to shoulder this coming season, it bears noting that he will not turn 26 years of age until January. It is reasonable to think that he is still on the upward slope of his development curve, that there is more upside to his game. Given his almost unbroken rise through his development so far, “elite” would be the next stop on the ladder and certainly within reach.
In the end…
John Carlson is not the best defenseman in the league at any one thing. Erik Karlsson might be a better offensive defenseman, Kris Letang might be a better power play performer, Brooks Orpik might be a bigger hitter, Ryan Suter might be a better defender, Drew Doughty might be a bigger minutes-eater. Carlson is emerging as an exceptional two-way defenseman, not a finished product, by any means, given some lingering issues with consistency in his own end, but one with a promise of taking his place among the best in the game as that specie of defenseman.
It is precisely that two-way character of his game that is critical to Washington’s success this season. In a sense, he is the defensemen’s version of Nicklas Backstrom, a player who can more than hold his own in any situation – even strength, power play, or penalty killing. He could be the defenseman who is on the ice in the last minute of a game, whether the Caps are a goal behind, tied, or a goal in front. That is one way to answer the question of whether or not a defenseman is or is not among the elite at his position in the NHL.
In that sense, Carlson’s “development” is almost, if not entirely, complete. It is now a matter of performance, of meeting a standard by which defensemen of the highest caliber might be measured. More than his numbers, how does he contribute to a winner? It is a new beginning in John Carlson’s career.
Projection: 82 games, 15-45-60, plus-14
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America