“The only sin is mediocrity.”
― Martha Graham
For five seasons, John Carlson was the rare defenseman in the NHL, an “iron man.” He appeared in all 376 scheduled regular season games over the 2010-2015 period as well as all 44 postseason games the Caps played. Then, in 2015-2016, the injury bug hit, and Carlson missed 26 regular season games to a broken foot. It was an unfortunate circumstance, given that even with the games missed he finished 8-31-39, plus-16, which translates to an 82-game pace of 12-45-57, plus-23, all of which would have been career bests.
One might have thought a healthy Carlson in 2016-2017 would challenge, if not improve on that pace. At 27 years old, he was entering his prime years of production, and he had already demonstrated himself capable of a defenseman who could be a 50-point or better player (he was 12-43-55, plus-11, in 82 games in 2014-2015). As it turned out, he was not healthy (at least not so as to be able to play in all 82 games), and he could not improve on his 2015-2016 pace (he finished on a 10-32-42, plus-8 pace).
It was not a case where injury depressed Carlson’s performance significantly, either. In the six ten-game splits in which he played in all ten games, he ranged between four and eight points, the 8-point split being one in which he scored almost half of his nine goals for the season – four in a seven-game stretch in late-December and early-January.
What ended up being particularly disappointing in the context of the latter part of the season was that Carlson managed one point over seven games in late-march and early-April before sitting out the last four games of the regular season to rest his lower body injury before the postseason. The odd part of that whole sequence of games is that between his absences for injury (six games in January and those last four games of the season), he topped 20 minutes per game in ice time and averaged 22:42, tops on the team. If he was nursing an injury through that stretch, he was not getting much by way of relief in his workload.
As it was, Carlson’s production mattered. The Caps were 25-2-3 in games in which he recorded a point. They were 7-1-2 in games in which he recorded at least five shots on goal. However, he certainly had a home lean to his numbers, going 5-19-24, plus-15 in 38 home games, but just 4-9-13, minus-8 in 34 road games.
Fearless’ Take… In some respects, this might have been something of an off-year for John Carlson, but he finished it as one of six defensemen who, over the past seven years, appeared in at least 500 games, averaged at least a half point per game, and had an aggregate plus-minus of plus-40 or better. Even with the hiccup in his high end numbers, he was one of 18 defensemen to appear in at least 70 games, average more than half point per game this season.
Cheerless’ Take… About that ice time thing. It’s not as if more Carlson was better. In 19 games in which he logged more than 24 minutes, the Caps were 11-5-3; they were 37-12-4 in games he logged fewer than 24 minutes
Odd Carlson Fact… Even with the injury problems of the last two seasons, Carlson cobbled together 30-plus point seasons in each. He is now tied with Larry Murphy for fifth in 30-plus-point seasons (six) in Capitals history.
Game to remember… February 9th vs. Detroit
The start of the new year was good to the Caps. When the calendar rolled over into the new year, Washington posted an excellent January, going 12-2-1. The success carried over into February, in which the Caps started the month with four straight wins heading into a home contest against the Detroit Red Wings. It looked good early for the Caps when Marcus Johansson scored in the sixth minute to open the scoring. The Red Wings were not going quietly, though, and got two goals from Andreas Athanasiou less than three minutes apart to take the lead. Brett Connolly tied the game late in the period to tie the contest going into the first intermission. Washington took a lead in the second period on a goal by T.J. Oshie, John Carlson getting one of the assists. Detroit clawed back into a tie early in the second period on a Henrik Zetterberg goal.
Less than three minutes later, though, Oshie stripped Danny Dekeyser of the puck in the faceoff circle to the left of the Red Wing net and fed Carlson for a one-timer that beat Petr Mrazek to give the Caps a lead they would not relinquish. For Carlson, it was the game-winning goal in a 6-3 win and a game in which he finished plus-4, his best rating in any game of the season and one of just three instances in the regular season in which a Caps defenseman finished a game plus-4 (Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen had the others).
Game to forget… January 15th vs. Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Flyers have not been an accommodating opponent for John Carlson. He came into the season never having recorded a goal against the Flyers in 25 career regular season games. That streak extended to 26 games in the teams’ first meeting of the year, a 3-2 Gimmick win for the Flyers on December 21st. Carlson barely had a chance to break that streak when the teams met for the second time this season on January 15th. Carlson skated just nine shifts, all in the first period, unable to return for the balance of the contest with a lower-body injury. Carlson had no marks on his score sheet line in 6:38 of ice time, his lowest of the season (he would miss the next six games). It was a piece of misfortune entirely forgotten in what would be a 5-0 Caps win, Philipp Grubauer’s second career shutout, and a game in which the Caps vaulted the top spot in the league’s standings. They would not trail any team in standings points from that point until the end of the season.
Postseason: 13 games, 2-2-4, plus-1
John Carlson led the Caps in goals in the postseason and was second only to Kevin Shattenkirk in points. That should not be considered as evidence of prolific output. Carlson had two goals and two assists in 13 games. It was a far cry from the five goals and 12 points he had in 12 games of the 2016 postseason. Like several Caps, his was a case of “what if he had one more point?” Washington was 3-1 in games in which he recorded a point, 4-5 when he didn’t, 1-4 in the second round series against Pittsburgh. The telling number for Carlson in the playoffs, though was this: “one.” He had one even strength point in the Pittsburgh series (an assist in the 4-2 Game 5 win). He had only one even strength point in the Toronto series, too, but when you win such thing can be forgotten.
In the end…
John Carlson’s 2016-2017 season went a bit sideways, a ho-hum first half followed by a second half dotted with injuries. When you consider the bold (ok, deranged) prognostication one noteworthy prognosticator had for Carlson, it was an especially disappointing result. That’s not his fault, though. Some folks are just plain dumb when prognostifying. Still, it was something of an odd year. Carlson finished first or second in goals, assists, and points among Capital defensemen. He led the defense in average ice time, shots on goal, game-winning goals, power play goals, and power play points. But two things stood out on the other side of the ledger. He was sixth on the team in SAT (49.55 percent) and seventh in plus-minus. Consider that Taylor Chorney was a plus-8 in 18 games; Carlson was plus-7 in 72 games. Whatever one thinks of plus-minus, finishing seventh among defensemen with a plus-7 on a squad that had five defensemen finish plus-20 or better is not a good finish. Injuries might have dragged his performance down, but it did not prevent what looked to be a disappointing overall season.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America