Gold watch, diamond ring,
I ain't missin' not a single thing.
And cufflinks, stick pin
When I step out I'm gonna do you in.
They come runnin' just as fast as they can
Coz' every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man.
-- Frank Lee Beard, Joe Michael Hill, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)
In the Style Setters 2012 section of Washingtonian, “15 of Washington’s most fashionable people turn it out” on the pages of the magazine. One of them is a smiling young man, impeccably dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit with all the accessories. And why shouldn’t he be smiling? Just 22 years old, a first-round draft choice in the National Hockey League, veteran (if you will) of almost 200 games, and whose number “74” jersey is adorned by many Washington Capitals fans in the D.C. metropolitan region. And, he is about to sign (labor issues willing) a contract that will pay him something substantially more than the $845,000 he was paid over each of the past three years.
Yes, there is much to smile about. Defenseman John Carlson enjoyed what had been the uninterrupted climb from first-round draft choice to prolific scorer in Canadian juniors, to tournament winning overtime goal in the 2010 world juniors tournament, to Calder Cup champion, to a fifth-place finish (and highest ranking defenseman) in Calder Trophy voting for top NHL rookie in 2011.
Then came the “interruption.” The 2011-2012 season was full of interruptions. He suffered his first “minus” season (minus-15) since he was a 17-year old playing for the Indiana Ice in the USHL in 2006-2007. Only three defensemen in entire league (of 297 having dressed) were on the ice for more goals against. None of them happened to play for a playoff team.
Carlson did face stiff competition – 22nd highest quality of competition at 5-on-5 among defensemen playing in at least 40 games last season – but he also had the 24th highest goals against average-on ice per 60 minutes of that same group of defensemen (behindthenet.ca). Only two of the 23 defensemen above him played for playoff teams, and one of them (Pavel Kubina) was traded from a non-playoff team (Tampa Bay) to a contender (Philadelphia) at the trading deadline. The next worst Capital defenseman in these rankings was Dennis Wideman, who was 85th. In his last 55 games, Carlson was minus-23. The regular season was not kind to him.
Carlson did achieve a measure of redemption in the playoffs. Among defensemen playing in at least 10 playoff games (a group of 39 defensemen), Carlson had the eighth lowest goals against-on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. He was 14th in Corsi relative to his quality of competition. And he did this by having the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts of any of the 39 defensemen in this group. Only ten of these defensemen were on ice for fewer even-strength goals, and only three of that group – Roman Hamrlik, Shea Weber, and Ryan Suter – had more even strength ice time per game. He and his partner, Karl Alzner, had become as dependable a defensive shut down pair as there was in the post-season.
What’s with this team and their reverse gear? Ovechkin slides backward. Mike Green. That guy who’s in Carolina now? And Carlson? If it was just him, maybe it would be just one of those speed bumps on the road of his career. But there seems to be a pattern with this team, and folks might just think he’s the latest to catch that bug. He was a “plus” player in only 13 of his last 55 games last season.
The Big Question… Which John Carlson will Caps fans see in 2012-2013, the regular season disappointment of last season or the post-season cornerstone?
John Carlson will not be 23 years old until January. It is a bit much, perhaps, to expect him to show the maturity of a player who is coming up on 33 years old. As such, there are bound to be potholes and detours on the road of his professional development. The best that one could say is that the regular season was something of a wake-up call, that nothing can be taken for granted. That Carlson stepped his game up in the post-season suggests a lesson learned. He has the tools to continue that march upward on his professional arc, and his head might be in the right place now to continue that progress.
In the end…
When he was a prospect, scouts and coaches said stuff like this of John Carlson…
“John Carlson is a big burly defensemen, he is a real good skater and a strong skater. He runs the power-play from the top of the umbrella and he has a very heavy shot. He’s a very self-assured kid and rightfully so -- he’s a boy, yet in a man’s body and very physically strong . . . I knew when I first saw him that he was a first-round pick. He was a guy I had seen before as an under-ager. He had all the tools – size, skill, physical presence and charisma."
-- Jack Barzee, NHL Central Scouting
"When I look at John Carlson, I just see pro written all over him. He's big, strong, can absolutely rip it. He's good on his feet and agile for a big kid. He's poised at all times and just has the mind for the game. He never gets rattled . . . as a coach, you know what you are going to get every time John goes out on the ice."
-- Charlie Skjodt, Head Coach, Indiana Ice
Last season he struggled in playing to that profile. He did record more goals and more power play goals than he did in 2010-2011, but the presence was not there on a night to night basis in the defensive end. He did not seem to be right enough on his feet to be in a good position to prevent scoring chances and looked at times to be suffering brain lock rather than exhibiting a mind for the game.
The playoffs did provide that measure of redemption for a disappointing regular season, and the task now will be to carry that forward into the 2012-2013 season. It won’t be enough to dress sharp, he now has to play sharp if the Caps are to move closer to the goal of a Stanley Cup.
Projection: 82 games, 10-26-36, plus-11
(photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)