“The worst thing that happens to you may be the best thing for you if you don't let it get the best of you.”
-- Will Rogers
When the puck dropped on Opening Night of the Washington Capitals’ 2015-2016 season, John Carlson took the ice in his 379th consecutive game, a streak that started late in the 2009-2010 season. He also took the ice as the undisputed number one defenseman for the team, his takeover of a position once occupied by Mike Green, now playing for the Detroit Red Wings, complete.
It was some time in coming, but over a five-year span starting with his first full season, it came steadily for Carlson. From 2010-2011 through 2014-2015, Carlson logged more minutes than any other defenseman (8,656, more than a thousand more minutes than Karl Alzner), had more goals than any defenseman (44, two more than Green), more assists (139), and more points (183).
What is more, his numbers improved over those first five full seasons. Carlson’s goal total rose from seven in his first full season to 12 last year, his assists going from 30 to 43, his points from 37 to 55. The constants were two – his presence in each and every game, and his minutes, averaging just over 23 minutes a game and never fewer than 21 in any of those five seasons.
Carlson got off to a hot start in 2015-2016, posting points in six of his first seven games (2-8-10). That kind of start would be hard for any contemporary defenseman to sustain, but he did manage to post points in 19 of his first 34 games through December 26th. But something was not right with Carlson, and whether it was coincidental or not, you could see it in his possession numbers in his early ten-game splits. The shot attempts for and against (Corsi-for plus-minus) went from plus-8 in his first segment to minus-8, then to minus-19 in his third segment. His fourth segment was ghastly, in which he was minus-26 in just four games. It was part of a streak in which his Corsi plus-minus at five-on-five was minus-48 over seven games.
It turned out there was a reason. Carlson had been playing on a broken foot/ankle (a fact only revealed at season’s end). On December 28th, against the Buffalo Sabres, Carlson was out of the lineup for the first time since April 6, 2010. He missed 12 games before returning to the lineup on January 27th against the Philadelphia Flyers. He still was not quite right, though. Over a 13-game span he was 0-4-4, plus-4. His Corsi-for plus-minus was plus-14 over those 13 games, but he had some rough spots along the way with a pair of minus-13 games against the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.
Back on the shelf he went, this time to undergo a procedure to remedy his problem. He returned to the lineup for good on March 25th against the New Jersey Devils, and in his last nine regular season games (he, like a few other Caps, sat out the season finale) he was 3-6-9, plus-7, and was plus-49 in Corsi plus-minus at five-on-five. At least in terms of his production, he was the player he was to start the season.
Fearless’ Take… Even playing in just 56 games this season, John Carlson was one of just eight defensemen this season to appear in at least 50 games and average 0.70 or more points per game. His plus-16 among that group was second only to Dallas’ John Klingberg. He finished the season as the eighth defenseman in Capitals’ history to record at least 50 career goals and at least 200 points. And, in his six full seasons, he is one of just 13 defensemen in the league with 400 or more games played, at least 50 goals, and at least 200 points. The Caps were 8-0-0 in games in which Carlson scored a goal in 2015-2016, and they were 24-2-3 in games in which he recorded a point.
Cheerless’ Take… Carlson might be the number one defenseman on paper, but on the ice it might be another thing. He was third on the club in even strength ice time per game, perhaps a nod to his pairing for the most part with Brooks Orpik and the pair of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen getting the most even strength minutes. His possession numbers were not all that special at five-on-five, either. Of 169 defensemen logging at least 750 five-on-five minutes this season, he was 100th in Corsi-for/Relative (minus-1.15).
Odd Carlson Fact… Carlson getting shots on goal did not seem to be much of a factor in wins and losses. In games in which he recorded one or no shots on goal, the Caps were 14-3-3. They were 25-8-3 in games in which he recorded more than one shot on goal.
Game to Remember… November 5th versus Boston
In the season’s early stages, the Caps did not lose often, but when they did they did so in ugly fashion. Their third loss of the season was a 5-2 thumping at the hands of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in early November. Next up was the Boston Bruins back home at Verizon Center. The Caps fell behind early on a power play goal by Jimmy Hayes. However, less than five minutes after that goal, the Caps tied it. Alex Ovechkin got the goal, a highlight goal scored while tumbling to the ice at the top of the crease, but it was John Carlson who started the play, earning an assist on what would be his 200th career point. After Brooks Laich gave the Caps a lead early in the second period, Carlson called his own number on a power play. Seven minutes into the period he took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and fired a one-timer past goalie Tuukka Rask to make it 3-1 in what would be a 4-1 Caps victory. It was one of nine multi-point games for Carlson on the season.
Game to Forget… November 3rd versus New York Rangers
That loss in the previous game was one a number of Caps might like to forget. The memory of John Carlson’s performance began with being on ice for both Ranger goals in the first period, the first one came when both he and his partner, Brooks Orpik, were caught below the goal line, allowing the Rangers to get bodies to the net and ending with Oscar Lindberg scoring for the Blueshirts. The second one came when Carlson got caught in the neutral zone leaving Orpik as the only defender back on a two-on-one on which Kevin Hayes scored. In the second period, Carlson got an early jump out of the zone as Marcus Johansson tried to secure the puck along the wall in the Caps’ end. When he failed to do so, Orpik was the only defender back as Mats Zuccarello fed Derick Brassard coming down the middle with Carlson trailing. Brassard scored to make it 4-1 in what would be a 5-2 Rangers win. Carlson finished with his only minus-3 of the season.
Postseason: 12 games, 5-7-12, minus-2, 53.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-3.3 CF%/Relative
John Carlson’s postseason was of the “on the one hand, on the other hand” variety. On the one hand, Carlson became the only defenseman in Caps history to average a point per game in the postseason while playing in at least ten games (he was 5-7-12 in 12 games). He had points in nine of the 12 games in which he played, including every one of the second round games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And, his possession numbers were very good – 53.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (13th among defensemen with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes as of June 5th), a Corsi-for percent/Relative of plus-3.3 (19th in that group; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
On the other hand, Carlson was on ice for half of the 22 goals scored against the Caps in 12 games. He was on ice for at least one goal against in nine of the 12 postseason games. If there was a bizarre part to that fact, it was that Carlson also was on ice for 17 of the 29 goals scored by the Caps. Things happened when he was on the ice, good and bad.
In the end…
John Carlson has rather methodically taken on a larger role on the Caps’ blue line over the years and has shown improvement in doing so. His year-to-year change in scoring on a per-game basis has improved to where his 2015-2016 season was his best in seven seasons on a points-per-game basis. He also sliced his penalty minutes on a per-game basis by more than 25 percent. His possession numbers have improved as well, the 2015-2016 season being his second straight finishing over 50 percent in Corsi-for at 5-on-5. There is still room for improvement in this area as his Corsi-for/Relative was in minus territory for the third straight year.
What marred Carlson’s season were his two absences from the lineup, the first time in his career he has missed significant time to injury. It is entirely likely that he was not 100 percent over the second half of the season and even into the playoffs. That might have played a role in his odd postseason with goals a-plenty at both ends when he was on the ice (the goals a-plenty against being a relative thing, given how few the Caps allowed overall). Still, even with the injuries, or in spite of them, Carlson had a solid season. Not that there isn’t room for improvement, especially at the defensive end, but given his history of steady improvement, it could be the best is yet to come for him.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America