Sunday, May 19, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
-- William Shakespeare

Last season, Washington Capital defenseman John Carlson had the season a lot of players dream of.  Career bests in almost every statistical category, votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman (he finished fifth), a Stanley Cup championship, and a brand new contract that is exceeded in average annual value only by that of Nashville’s P.K. Subban and, barring the unforeseen, will make him a Capital well into the next decade.

With all that happening during and after last season, one might forgive Carlson to have regressed a bit in the first year of his new deal and on the heels of a long and successful Stanley Cup run last season.  Quite the opposite; Carlson was one of the rare players who improved on his many of his previous “contract year” numbers after having signed the big deal.  He was off slightly in goals (from 15 to 13), despite a better shooting percentage (7.0 to 6.3 percent last year).  He was a plus-21 this season, a large improvement over an “even” rating in 2017-2018.  He had 30 power play points, slightly up from the 28 he had last season.  And, he averaged a career high 25:04 in ice time per game.

Carlson has become part of the core in terms of his contributions.  Washington was 30-11-5 in the 46 games in which Carlson recorded a point, 18-15-3 in the games in which he did not or was out of the lineup.  And there was an odd feature about his ice time.  Defensemen are often praised for the ice time they log, the more being evidence of their durability and the degree to which teams depend on them.  However, it doesn’t seem to be closely associated with team success.  For instance, nine defensemen logged at least 27 minutes in ice time at least 15 times this season, including Carlson.    Only the San Jose Sharks won a higher percentage of available standings points when Brent Burns logged at least 27 minutes (28 of 44 available points/63.6 percent) than the Caps did when Carlson logged at least 27 minutes (18 of 30 available points/.60.0 percent).  No player skates in a vacuum, and both the Sharks and Caps were better teams this season than, say the Los Angeles Kings with Drew Doughty (51.4 percent of available standings points earned) or the Edmonton Oilers with Darnell Nurse (46.9 percent of available standings points earned), but it is one more indicator of how important John Carlson has become to the Caps.

Fearless’ Take… When one looks at this era of Capitals hockey, it will be dominated by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as figures on the team’s “Mt. Rushmore” of this era.  John Carlson makes a case for being on that sculpture as well.  When the season ended, Carlson found himself among the highest-ranked defensemen in many all-time statistical categories.  Looking at eight such categories (games, goals, even-strength goals, power play goals, assists, points, game-winning goals, and plus-minus rating), Carlson ranks in the top five in six of them (all but goals (sixth) and power play goals (seventh)).  Only three defensemen in team history rank higher: Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, and Kevin Hatcher (seven categories apiece).

Cheerless’ Take… Carlson had a strange year scoring goals.  He recorded at least one goal in 11 games this season, and the Caps had a 5-4-2 record in them.  Compare that to last season when Carlson had at least one goal in 15 games, and the Caps went 12-2-1. 

Odd Carlson Fact… John Carlson is one of two NHL defensemen to have posted at least 65 points in each of the past two seasons.  San Jose’s Brent Burns is the other.  Only Burns has recorded at least one point in more games over those two seasons (100) than Carlson (97).

Bonus Odd Carlson Fact... Through Friday's games, John Carlson still leads all NHL defensemen in points recorded over the last two postseasons (25, one more than Boston's Torey Krug and Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien).

Game to Remember… March 26th vs. Carolina

When the Capitals took the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena on March 26th in the front half of a home-and-home set against the Hurricanes, they were stumbling to the finish of the regular season.  Going into that contest, the Caps 3-3-1 in their previous seven games and lost two of three games on the four-game home stand that would wrap up against Carolina. 

The Caps broke on top late in the first period on a T.J. Oshie goal, but Carolina tied it late in the second when Dougie Hamilton scored for the Hurricanes.  Early in the third period, the Caps broke the tie on Alex Ovechkin’s 49th goal of the season.  Seven minutes later, John Carlson provided some insurance. Evgeny Kuznetsov got things started on the play when he flagged down a puck out of the air as he was about to circle behind the Carolina net.  As he did so, he collided with the stick of goalie Petr Mrazek, knocking the stick out of Mrazek’s hand.  Coming out the other side, he sent the puck cross ice to Dmitry Orlov at the left point.   Orlov wound up for a slap shot, but he saw Carlson pinching in from the right wing circle, filling in the space that Kuznetsov vacated.  Orlov’s slap-pass was right on Carlson’s stick blade, and Carlson redirected the puck behind Mrazek to make it 3-1 at the 11:16 mark of the period.  It was Carlson’s 399th career point.

With the clock under three minutes to play and the Hurricane net empty, Carlson ran down a loose puck in the corner to the right of goalie Braden Holtby and chipped it up the boards to Ovechkin, who feathered it to Nicklas Backstrom exiting the defensive zone.  Backstrom skated to the red line, taking a peek behind him to see if Ovechkin was in position to receive a return pass and try for a 50th goal of the season, but there were two Hurricanes between Backstrom and Ovechkin.  Backstrom fired a one-hopper down the ice and into the empty cage for the final tally in the 4-1 win.  Carlson earned an assist on the play to become the fifth defenseman in Capitals history to reach the 400 point mark, joining Calle Johansson (474), Scott Stevens (429), Kevin Hatcher (46), and Sergei Gonchar (416).                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  January 15th at Nashville

On March 3, 2017, John Carlson skated 19:43 in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.  For each of the next 140 regular season games, he skated at least 20 minutes.  That brought Carlson and the Caps to Nashville to face the Predators.  Nashville has not been an especially hospitable venue for the Caps, who were 5-7-1 with one tie in 14 visits there in team history.  What made this game more difficult for the Caps was that it was the back half of a back-to-back set of games, the front half being a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues the previous evening.

The Caps might have wished they didn’t make the trip.  The Predators had a 2-0 lead before the game was 11 minutes old, and after a power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom interrupted the home team’s fun (Carlson assisted), Nashville went on to score four more goals in a row before a T.J. Oshie goal provided the final 7-2 margin. 

Carlson was not around at the finish, though.  By the time Nashville scored their seventh goal, Carlson had already been on the ice for two Nashville goals (one of them scored shorthanded), took a penalty, and had one shot attempt (a miss).  Before that seventh goal for Nashville, Carlson was dumped to the ice by Flip Forsberg, whacked in the visor as he lay on ice, and then Forsberg slashed Carlson’s stick for good measure.  Before the faceoff after the Predators’ goal, Carlson gave the officials an earful from the Caps’ bench, for which he earned 12 more minutes in penalties, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a game misconduct that ended his evening.  For the first time since that win against the Flyers in March 2017, Carlson skated less than 20 minutes, ending the night with 18:35 in ice time, the only time in 80 games in the regular season that he skated less than 20 minutes.

Postseason…  In the Caps’ Stanley Cup run in 2018, John Carlson was tied for the league lead in goals among defensemen (five), led the league in assists (15), and led in points (20).  His plus-11 was second among the league’s defensemen to teammate Brooks Orpik (plus-17).  Fast forward to 2019.  It did not go nearly as well for Carlson, who finished the opening round series loss to the Hurricanes without a goal (the first time he did not record a postseason goal since he failed to do so in a seven-game loss to the Rangers in the opening round in 2013) and five points, three of which came in the series opener, a 4-2 win over Carolina.  Only one of those five points he recorded in the series came at even strength, and none of them came on the road.

Looking ahead… John Carlson is signed through the 2025-2026 season, and he has a modified no-trade clause (15-team no-trade list submitted by the player through 2021-2022, a ten-team list thereafter through the end of his contract).  That means that by the time Carlson’s tenure with the Caps ends, he will almost certainly hold every meaningful statistical record for the club among defensemen.  He could be the team’s all-time leading point-getter from the blue line as early as next season, although that would require another improvement in his point total (he needs 72 points to eclipse Calle Johansson).  With ten goals he could become the fifth defenseman in team history to reach 100 goals with the club, and he needs 49 assists to pass Calle Johansson for first all-time on that list.

In the end…

Finalists for NHL trophies are often a small, slowly changing community.  Take, for example, the Norris Trophy for the league’s top defenseman.  Over the last five seasons, including this one, there have been six players filling the 15 finalist spots.  Four of them – Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Brent Burns, and Victor Hedman – have been named finalists three times.  P.K. Subban has been a finalist twice.  This season, Calgary’s Mark Giordano broke the lock on that gated community and was named a finalist.  Despite having more goals than Doughty over the last five seasons (57 to 51), despite having more points (269) than either Doughty (246) or Subban (241) over the last five seasons, despite trailing only Burns in game-winning goals (15 to 20) over the last five seasons, and despite one of only two defensemen with at least 65 points the last two seasons (Burns being the other), John Carlson has yet to earn a finalist spot for the award. 

What is more, Carlson is the only top point-getter among defensemen over the last five seasons (he led all defensemen last season with 68 points) not to be named a finalist in the year in which he led the league, and two of them won the award in their league-leading year (Karlsson in 2015 and Burns in 2017), with this year’s results pending (Burns led the league and is a finalist).  So let’s not throw up the “defense is more than scoring” argument too strongly.  It makes one wonder what, if anything, Carlson is going to have to do to crack the seal on that container of Norris finalists.  Nevertheless, he did have a fine season in 2018-2019, albeit marred by a disappointing postseason, a profile he shares with a lot of teammates.

Grade: A-