Sunday, September 22, 2013

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

Theme: “Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.”
-- Oscar Wilde

The position of defenseman in the National Hockey League is a grueling one.  It taxes the mind and body, and it is difficult to master.  John Carlson has established himself among the most durable defensemen in the league, having dressed for each of the league’s regular season games over the past three seasons.  Know how many other defensemen can make that claim?  Four: Matt Carle, Rob Scuderi, Keith Yandle, and Karl Alzner.  That’s it.  At age 23, Carlson has learned to deal with the mental and physical rigors of the game to be able to answer the call every night, and that is not a common characteristic in the NHL.

Next on the to-do list might be consistency.  Carlson’s first full season with the Capitals was a revelation.  He played in all 82 games (the only rookie defenseman to do so) and was among the rookie defenseman leaders in goals (tied for fourth), assists (tied for second), points (fourth), plus-minus (second), game-winning goals (tied for first), and ice time (first).

His sophomore season was not nearly as impressive.  He had trouble getting started at the offensive end of the ice (two points in his first eight games), then when his offensive game came around, he seemed to be on ice for just about every goal scored against the Caps.  He was on ice for 104 of the 226 goals against the Caps for the 2011-2012 season.  Only three defensemen were on ice for more goals against. 

Carlson rebounded to have a solid 2012 playoff, then continue the trend into the 2013 season in which he was on a career best 82-game pace in goals and points, and was on ice for only 33 even strength goals, an 82-game pace (56) almost as good as his rookie season (51).

Then, like the rest of the team, he slipped some in the seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the post-season.  He finished the seven games with just one point (an assist in Game 3) and was on ice for eight of the 16 goals scored by the Rangers in the series.

Fearless’ Take…

Carlson has the offensive part of his game down, especially for one as young as he is.  Over the 2010-2011 through 2012-2013 period, Carlson is one of eight NHL defensemen 23 years of age or younger with at least 20 goals and at least 90 points.  He has been given a bigger power play role with the club, averaging more than two minutes per game last season (he averaged more than two minutes a game in 2010-2011, too, but this was more a product of Mike Green missing 33 games).

Now, let’s do a thought exercise (with pictures!).  Consider three defensemen and a few commonly referred-to 5-on-5 measures from last season…

You have figured out that John Carlson is one of these defensemen.  He is “Defenseman B.”  The other two are Ryan Suter (“Defenseman A”) and Zdeno Chara (“Defenseman C”).  Suter is 28 years old, with 590 games of regular season experience in the NHL, and has been a Norris Trophy finalist.  Chara is 36 years old, with 1,055 games, and has won a Norris Trophy.  Carlson is 23, with 234 games of regular season experience.  Yeah, yeah… small sample size, but it isn’t bad company, either.

Cheerless’ Take…

Let’s try another one of those thinkin’ exercises.  Here are two scoring lines:

18 games, 3-9-12, plus-19
30 games, 3-7-10, minus-8

That’s John Carlson against the Southeast Division and John Carlson against everyone else last season.  He was a “plus” player only four times all season against non-Southeast teams: Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, and the New York Rangers.  Twelve of his 13 minus-games came against non-Southeast teams.

And here is an odd fact about his 2012-2013 season.  His offense dried up in the last 26 games.  He had four goals in his first 22 games, two in his last 28.  That was a product of both fewer shots and lower efficiency.  In his first 22 games he averaged 2.32 shots per game and converted on 7.84 percent of them.  He was on a pace to set a career best in shooting percentage.  But, in his last 26 games it was 1.77 shots per game and a 4.35 percent rate of scoring on them.  Not a lot in terms of shots per game difference, but it was a 24 percent drop in shots on goal overall.

The Big Question… Can John Carlson put together a solid, consistent 82 games?

This is not a simple question to answer.  The question implies a lack of consistency last season.  On one level, one could say Carlson lacked that consistency.  He had his ups and downs over the course of the season.  But Carlson had the odd circumstance of being matched with largely one-dimensional defensemen of entirely different types. 

Of his 810 minutes of 5-on-5 time last season, Carlson spent 373 minutes skating on a pair with John Erskine and another 189 minutes skating on a pair with Jack Hillen (he did not skate as many as 100 minutes with any other defensemen).  Erskine is a physical defenseman who provides little in the way of offense and does not have elite foot speed to play in his own end.  Hillen is a somewhat undersized defenseman who is perhaps more adept in the offensive end and who has had health issues over his career (he has not played more than 69 games in any of his six seasons and has missed time for jaw, concussion, and shoulder injuries). 

Carlson might be categorized as a two-way defenseman, but he might have been put in situations where he had to be one type while skating on one pair, a different one skating with another.  It might have been a bit much for a 23-year old defenseman with fewer than 250 games experience to deal with consistently.

In the end…

John Carlson will not lack for motivation this season.  There is the perennial chase for the Stanley Cup, of course.  But this season he has the added incentive of a potential spot on the United States men’s ice hockey Olympic team.  This incentive converges with his need to be more consistent.  As he put it himself, “I just need to stay consistent. That’s something that I’ve battled with, and after I got out of that start last season, I thought I played great game in and game out.  I’ve just got to work my butt off to make sure {Team USA management] can’t cross me off.”

One thing Carlson will have to avoid is a slow start, especially in his own end.  In Washington’s first 27 games last season the club allowed 82 goals.  Carlson was on ice for 41 of them.  What he is looking for is what he did in his last 21 games, over which he was on ice for only 20 goals.  As for the rest of his game, he will not get the power play time to be a top-shelf offensive producer.  That role still belongs to Mike Green, but he could be on the brink of becoming a solid 40-plus point performer from the blue line.  If he has the conditions – ice time, a top-four role, a stable and reliable partner, some time on the power play – he might just have the results he and the Caps (not to mention the U.S. Olympic Team) are looking for.

Projection: 82 games, 11-28-39, plus-11

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

Theme: “It's all in how you arrange the thing... the careful balance of the design is the motion.”
-- Andrew Wyeth

If you Googled “Karl Alzner” today and checked on news for the Caps defenseman, the first two stories were one about his road trip from British Columbia to Washington, the other a story about his treating his dogs to McDonalds to celebrate Murphy’s fifth birthday (he would be one of the dogs).  The dogs are probably more the “wild child” sort than is Alzner, as we found out a couple of years ago after a playoff game.  They (well, sort of) even have their own Twitter feed

It is that sort of low-key, balanced, dependable, salt of the earth sort of approach Alzner has brought to the ice in his five seasons in Washington (and gets him upstaged by his dogs).  He is not flashy, what with a career 82-game scoring pace of 2-12-14, plus-5 and having only two multi-point games in a 263-game career in the regular season. 

He does, however, draw the tough assignments.  In terms of 5-on-5 ice time faced, the top ten he faced in 2013 include:

Jordan Staal
Evander Kane
Jeff Skinner
Steven Stamkos
Martin St. Louis
Blake Wheeler
Nik Antropov
Ilya Kovalchuk
Marcel Goc
Olli Jokinen

That is, of course, heavily weighted to the Southeast Division, but that is a product of scheduling.  Against other divisions, though… he drew Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin most often from among the Boston Bruins.  It was Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers.  Evgeni Malkin and James Neal from Pittsburgh (source:  Alzner does not draw grinders.

The result was that his goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 was better than Dion Phaneuf, better than Rob Scuderi, better than Jay Bouwmeester, better than Robyn Regehr.  Perhaps as important, his being the stay-at-home sort allowed Mike Green to do his thing in the offensive side of the game (Alzner skated almost four times as many minutes with Green at 5-on-5 than he did with any other Caps defenseman).

Fearless’ Take…

Offense always lends itself more readily to analysis than defense, and Karl Alzner is a defensive defenseman.  So let’s look at this a bit subjectively for a moment.  Alzner signed a four-year/$11.2 million deal last July, a salary cap hit of $2.8 million a year.  If you look at his age, date of his contract signing, and cap hit, then compare it to his “comparable” comparables (from, the list looks like Michael Del Zotto, Jared Spurgeon, P.K. Subban, and Carl Gunnarsson.  Except for Subban, Alzner looks like a very good deal, even compared with this group. 

This is also a defenseman with fewer offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 last season than guys like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Mark Stuart, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Kimmo Timonen, and Anton Volchenkov.  Alzner has to be considered among the best at what he does among defensemen 25 or younger (he turns 25 on Tuesday).

Cheerless’ Take…

It is one thing to say that Karl Alzner tending to business in his own end frees things up for Mike Green to do his thing at the offensive end.  But if Alzner poses no threat in the offensive end, do teams load up to make things harder for Green on his side of the ice?  Green had 12 points at even strength in 35 games, only four assists.  That put him in the company of Alexei Emelin, Zach Bogosian, and Andrej Sekera in terms of even strength points per game. 

The Big Question… Does Karl Alzner have another gear in his offensive game?

Even by Karl Alzner’s modest standard, last year was a barren year on offense.  Going into last season his career per-82 game average scoring line was 2-13-15.  Last year he was 1-4-5 in 48 games, which works out to a 2-7-9 82-game scoring rate.  Alzner is not going to be the sort of defenseman who rushes the puck up ice to create offense, as does Mike Green.  He is not going to pound the net with booming shots like a John Carlson.  However, Alzner recorded progressively higher point totals when he played in Calgary in Canadian junior hockey, and he had a pair of 20-plus point seasons in Hershey in partial seasons before joining the Caps for good.  There could be some untapped potential there.

The idea here is not an either-or matter, that Alzner needs to trade some of his defensive game for a larger offensive footprint.  He is still young enough, at soon-to-be 25, to expand his game, to add more layers to it.  Part of it is efficiency.  Among defensemen playing in at least half his team’s games, Alzner finished tied for 137th in shooting percentage at 2.6 percent, and that was higher than his career average going into the season (2.4 percent).  Another part of it is effectiveness.  Among that same group of defensemen last season, Alzner finished 121st in total shots on goal.

Alzner is not likely to be a 20-point defenseman this season, but if he can be more of a threat from his side of the ice (and this is where coaching will come into play), even if he is not as prolific as a Mike Green or John Carlson, he could make defenses more honest.  Just a little more shot volume and maybe a little more efficiency on the shots he does take could do the trick.

In the end…

Alzner appears to have found an unexpected home.  The thinking since he and John Carlson broke into the league was that the two would form a foundation defensive pairing for a decade or more.  Last season Alzner spent more time with Mike Green at 5-on-5 (508:54) than he did with the rest of the roster defensemen combined (336:09), including John Carlson (79:38).  That now being a pair grown familiar with one another, better things might be in store at both ends of the ice.

However, any offense Alzner generates is, frankly, gravy for this team.  His stock in trade is his ability to deny the offense of others.  He does it, not with bone-crushing hits (107th among 289 defensemen last season) or blocked shots (37th), but with body and stick position, and a growing sense of awareness that comes with experience.  In that respect, what Caps fans should be expecting is that he do more of it.  Just don’t expect him to be flashy doing it.  Leave “flashy” to the dogs.

Projection: 82 games, 3-12-15, plus-6

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America