“Life is about growth. People are not perfect when they're 21 years old.”
-- Bill Walton
John Carlson struggled mightily in the last half of the 2011-2012 season. He was 4-8-12, minus-20, over his last 52 games. It was hardly the expected result of a promising former first-round draft pick who showed so much promise over his first 100 games. But when he turned things around with a solid playoff performance in 2012, much was expected of Carlson this season.
Did he deliver? Well, yes and no. The start of his season looked a little too much like the start of last season. It seemed as if every time that an opponent scored a goal against the Caps, Carlson had a good look at it. He was on ice for 41 of the 82 goals scored against Washington over the Caps’ first 27 games.
That ratio improved a lot for Carlson down the stretch. He was on ice for only 20 of the 48 goals scored against Washington over the Caps’ last 21 games.
Carlson’s uncertain start and stronger finish not only looks a lot like last year’s performance, it looks a bit like that of his erstwhile partner, Karl Alzner. Carlson spent more time on ice at 5-on-5 with three defensemen other than Alzner (79:38), including Jeff Schultz (86:06), who played in only 26 games this season. Carlson spent 46 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with John Erskine on what would be the Caps second defensive pairing by year end.
Overall (and that is an important word here), Carlson had a better regular season this season than last. His goals/60 minutes at 5-on-5 were up (0.173 to 0.445). His assists/60 minutes at 5-on-5 were up (0.564 to 0.667). His shots were up (4.945 to 5.410), individual Fenwick (6.853 to 7.410), and individual Corsi (from 10.193 to 10.300, all numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
These numbers are not unexpected, though, since he was often matched with superior offensive talent. Again, from stats.hockeyanalysis.com, the offensive quality of teammates was improved (from 0.5 to 12.9 on this particular measure, “HARO/QOT,” again from stats.hockeyanalysis.com), while the defensive quality of his competition was inferior (dropped from -11.2 to -24.8 on the “HARD/QOC” measure). And this is not a surprise, either, when you understand that the forwards with whom Carlson was matched most often at 5-on-5 in ice time were, in order, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom, and Troy Brouwer, all of whom Carlson spent more than five minutes per game of 5-on-5 time skating with this season.
Odd Carlson Stat… This might become its own feature, but there is the matter of that “Southeast Division” effect happening here. Carlson was 3-9-12, plus-19 against the other Southeast Division teams in 18 games, 3-7-10, minus-8, in 30 games against everyone else. And for your bonus stat, Carlson scored three goals against the Southeast, all in wins, and scored three goals outside the division, all in losses.
Game to Remember… April 23rd vs. Winnipeg. In Game 46 of the regular season the Caps had a chance to clinch the Southeast Division and a three-seed in the playoffs with a win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Caps had already blown a two-goal lead and were in jeopardy of blowing a one-goal lead in the third period against the visiting Jets. It was John Carlson on the ice in the last minute (with John Erskine) to protect that one-goal margin, and the choice worked for the Caps when Alex Ovechkin scored an empty-net goal to seal a 5-3 division-clinching win. Carlson had only one shot on the evening (no points), but he was a plus-3 in more than 20 minutes of ice time.
Game to Forget… January 24th through January 27th. This is, as you might guess, a multi-game horror show for Carlson. The Caps had a stretch of three games in four nights against Montreal, New Jersey, and Buffalo. From the 3:47 mark of the second period in the first game of this set, against Montreal, to the 9:34 mark of the first period of the last game in the set, against Buffalo, Carlson was on ice for all eight goals scored against the Caps. The Caps lost to the Canadiens (4-1), lost to the Devils in overtime (3-2), and allowed the first goal to the Sabres (the eighth in the sequence for Carlson) in what would be a 3-2 Capitals comeback win.
Post-season… The second defensive pair for the Capitals had a tough series against the Rangers. It was a return to the struggles that Carlson experienced early in the regular season in the past two years. He (and partner John Erskine) was on ice for eight of the 16 goals scored by the Rangers in the series, seven of those goals coming in losses, four of them in the third periods of games. And Carlson was not making it up in the offensive end. He had one point in the series, an assist on the first goal in a 4-3 Game 3 loss.
In the end…
John Carlson is still waiting to put that whole season together. He had a decent regular season, overall, even with the consistency issues early on. His post-season was, to put it mildly, disappointing. That is the opposite from the 2011-2012 season in which he had a disappointing regular season (itself surprising, given his experience in juniors with Dale Hunter), followed by a solid post-season. One could make the argument that he has not improved much (or at least as much as folks might have hoped) since his rookie season in which he finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting as top rookie, and the highest vote-getter among defensemen.
The lingering question from this season, and the playoffs in particular, is whether Carlson’s inconsistency was a product of a lack of development on his part or being paired primarily with a defenseman who might be better suited to a third pair. The second pair was the one exploited by the Rangers in their playoff series (no defenseman was on ice for more 5-on-5 goals scored against than John Erskine: 7 of the 13 scored by the Rangers).
When Carlson was a 21-year old rookie, he was not perfect. He plays what is according to many the hardest position to master in hockey. But as a 21-year old rookie he was thought of as the best of his rookie defenseman class (according to Calder Trophy voting). That was not a great Calder class for defensemen (five of the 17 players receiving Calder votes in that class were defensemen, none ranked higher than fifth in final voting), but Carlson added it to an impressive early-career resume that included the game-winning goal in the 2010 world juniors championship, a fine 2009-2010 season with the Hershey Bears in which the Bears won the Calder Cup, and then a respectable showing in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs in which he was 1-3-4, plus-6, in a disappointing seven-game loss to Montreal in the first round.
That was the early-career resume of a player who could be a top-pair defenseman. Some folks might have been of the view that with that progress he could make Mike Green expendable (or at least a luxury the Caps could afford to let go with his high salary cap hit). That has not yet come to pass. For Carlson’s own game, it is now a matter of growth, to become the reliable, consistent two-way defenseman fans saw in the making when he came into the league.
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America