Theme: “Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them.”
-- Winston Churchill
Since John Carlson was taken by the Capitals with the 27th overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, John Carlson’s career seems to have been an unbroken arc of advancement and success. After being drafted by the Caps, Carlson joined the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and led all rookie defensemen in that league in goals, assists, overall scoring, and plus-minus; and was an important ingredient in London’s advancing through the playoffs until losing to eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor. The bitterness of losing didn’t last long, as he was assigned to the Hershey Bears, where he played in 16 games and was 2-1-3, plus-3 for the 2009 Calder Cup champions.
His meteoric climb continued the following season, one in which he would split time between the Bears (48 games, 4-35-39, plus-37), whom he would represent in the AHL All Star Game, and the Capitals (22 games, 1-5-6, plus-11). He would experience a reversal of fortune, of sorts, being called up to the Caps for the opening round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, where the Caps would lose in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens. He would return to the Bears, however, where he would go 2-5-7, plus-7 in 13 games as the Bears repeated as Calder Cup champion. In the midst of all of this he was able to participate in the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he finished third in scoring among all defensemen in the tournament, leading all defensemen in goals scored. Oh, and one of them happened to be the championship-winning goal, scored in overtime against Team Canada in a 6-5 win.
Quite a ride in less than two years following his being drafted by the Caps, in more ways than one.
Success seems to follow Carlson around, and we do not view that as a coincidence or Carlson as a mere passenger on the Good Times Express. He has been an important element in all of the success his teams have enjoyed. But it is the two incidences of team disappointment that might be instructive here. In the first, his London Knights dropped four of five games to the Windsor Spitfires in a series in which all five games were decided by one goal, all of them in overtime. An excruciating way to lose. But after a week off, he stepped into the lineup for the Hershey Bears and was promptly thrown into what would be another seven-game series, this time against arch-rival Wilkes-Barre Scranton. He accorded himself well (11 shots on goal, one goal, even, no penalty minutes). In fact, Carlson would not see the penalty box in any of the 16 games he would play for the Bears in their Calder Cup run, perhaps an indicator of his ability to focus and play disciplined hockey.
Then there is last year’s disappointment at losing to the Canadiens. It is revealing that in Game 7 of that series Carlson had more ice time than any defenseman not named “Mike Green.” And it wasn’t as if he was a victim of the bench being shortened in the third period as the Caps sought to overtake Montreal. He skated 6:34 in that third period, again second to Green. It wasn’t enough, as the Caps lost, but Carlson again had more work to do. He would skate in Albany on the night after the Caps’ loss and contribute an important third period assist in the Bears’ 5-4 overtime win to clinch the second round series with the River Rats. He would come up especially big later, in the Calder final against the Texas Stars, after the Bears dropped the first two games. In Games 3-6 Carlson was 2-3-5, plus-5, his goals being the game-winners in Game 5 and the championship-clinching goal in Game 6.
His valleys have been infrequent, but he seems to have responded well to having found them. And that could have meaning for the coming season and a franchise that has known a lot of valleys in more than 30 years. A lot is expected of Carlson to help get the Caps out of those valleys, precisely because he has enjoyed such frequent team success at such a young age. He has to be considered a potential Calder Trophy candidate.
Amid all this heady talk, though, there are other things to consider. First, Carlson is, after all, only 20 years old. It’s asking a lot to put him into a top-four position on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations and expect an uninterrupted path to success, even for a youngster as accomplished as Carlson, especially over an 82-game grind followed by a two month march through the playoffs. But about that 82-game season. Last year, Carlson played in 78 regular season and tournament games from October through early April (48 with the Hershey, seven in World Juniors, the AHL All Star Game, 22 with the Caps), followed by 20 playoff games (seven with Washington, 13 with Hershey). In 2008-2009 he played in 59 regular season games with London, followed by 30 playoff games (14 with London, 16 with Hershey). Carlson has not been a stranger to long seasons and long playoff runs the past two years. There were times late last year when Carlson looked a bit overcome by the wear and tear, and for this season the question will be whether all that hockey over the last two years has primed him for the nightly grind of an NHL season, or whether, like too many pitches for too young an arm of a major league pitching prospect, it was too much hockey for too young a player.
Fearless: Uh, cuz? Those 98 games Carlson played last year? Well, Tyler Myers played in 90 the year before he won the Calder Trophy (58 regular season games with Kelowna in juniors, 26 in the WHL and Memorial Cup playoffs, and 6 in the World Junior). Fellow rookie and Calder candidate P.K. Subban played in 101 games last year. Good players on good teams do that.
Cheerless: I’m havin’ trouble thinkin’ up anything bad here. Maybe that he wears his helmet kinda funny, like a kid with a ball cap on the back of his head. OK, here… the Caps have drafted 110 defensemen in franchise history. 46 have actually dressed for at least one NHL game. Only 17 of them have dressed for at least 250 NHL games. Three have played on Stanley Cup championship teams. None of them did it for the Caps. John Carlson, welcome to our nightmare. Your “Real American Hero” thing is going to be tested… big time.
In the end…
Given Carlson’s speedy rise through the ranks and uncommon success in doing so, there is almost an assumption that his success is going to be repeated here, now, at this level of hockey. Part of that is the fact that the Caps have sputtered in the post-season recently with the other defensemen on this squad and that the club hasn’t added to that group, other than Carlson and Karl Alzner now penciled in as every night defensemen this coming season. He certainly has had a flair for the dramatic – the championship-winning goal in World Juniors, the tying goal that saved (for a while) the Caps’ season in Game 2 of the opening round of the 2010 playoffs, the game-winners in Games 5 and 6 in last spring’s Calder finals.
It’s hard not to expect big things for Carlson this season, but that has to be tempered by the fact that he is a rookie and that he is going to be facing top-flight competition on a nightly basis. He is not likely to put up the offensive numbers of, say, a Tyler Myers last season, but remember that Myers did not have nearly the top-end defenseman playing on his team that Carlson will have in Mike Green, who will get the lion’s share of ice time (including perhaps almost all the power play time). He could, though, end up being the second leading scorer among defensemen on this club. Why? Here is one thing to watch for. Mike Green was fifth in the league among defensemen in shots on goal, but you’d have to go to 94th before you’d seen the next defenseman who played at all for the Caps last year (Brian Pothier) and 116th before finding a Cap who spent all his time with the club last year (Tom Poti). Carlson might do a better job of getting the puck to the net for the likes of Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich to pick up rebounds.
73 games, 6-22-28, +17