“It's not just a question of conquering a summit previously unknown, but of tracing, step by step, a new pathway to it.”
-- Gustav Mahler
There have been 180 defensemen to dress for at least one game as a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. John Carlson might be a member of the all-time Caps team at the position. Certainly his numbers are “top-six” in many qualities. For instance, in the “time flies” category, only Calle Johansson and Rod Langway have played more games at the position (983 and 726, respectively) than has Carlson (688). Among other categories, Carlson ranks as follows:
- Goals: 6th (90)
- Assists: 3rd (313)
- Points: 5th (403)
- Plus-Minus: 4th (plus-80)
- Even Strength Goals: 3rd (64)
- Power Play Goals: T-7th (25, with Sylvain Cote)
- Power Play Assists: 4th (126)
- Power Play Points: 7th (151)
- Game Winning Goals: 4th (18)
- Minutes (since 1997-1998): 1st (15,991)
- Time on Ice per Game (since 1997-1998): 4th (23:15)
Carlson has been a remarkably durable player, his six seasons with 80 or more games played tied for most among franchise defensemen (with Karl Alzner). Only four defensemen in team history have had more seasons with ten or more goals than Carlson. Only Scott Stevens and Sergei Gonchar have had more seasons with 30 or more power play points (three seasons apiece) than Carlson (two).
Last season, Carlson hit the 70-point mark for the first time in his career. It was a season in which he started hot (5-30-35, plus-18, in his first 30 games), but the ice time he logged in that hot start (more than 25 minutes per game) made the pace difficult to sustain. He went 1-7-8, plus-2 in his next 16 games while still averaging more than 25 minutes per game. Carlson did not suffer any lengthy cold slumps, finishing up the season 7-20-27, plus-1, in his last 34 games.
Odd Carlson Fact…
Last season, six defensemen appeared in 80 or more games and skated at least 20 minutes in all of them. John Carlson would have been a seventh but for a game in mid-January in which he skated 18:35. With more than 12 minutes remaining in a game against the Nashville Predators and Carlson having skated 18:35 to that point, he was hit with a game misconduct penalty. Had he skated two more shifts, he almost certainly would have hit the 20 minute mark and would have finished the season 80-for-80 in 20-minute games.
Bonus Odd Carlson Fact…
High shot volumes by Carlson had the appearance of forcing the issue. In 22 games in which he recorded four or more shots on goal, the Caps were 10-8-4. At the other end of the spectrum, Washington was 8-3-1 in the 12 games in which he did not record a shot on goal, but he did have nine assists over those games.
John Carlson and San Jose’s Brent Burns are the only defensemen in the league to record at least 65 point in each of the last two seasons. Over those two seasons Carlson is tied for sixth in total goals by a defenseman (28), second in assists (110), second in points (138), first in power play points (65), and ninth in average ice time (24:55 per game). Still, over the past two seasons he has failed to earn a Norris Trophy finalist spot in either season, those spots going to Victor Hedman (twice, wining in 2017-2018), Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Mark Giordano (winning last season), and Burns. Carlson finished fifth in the voting in 2017-2018 and fourth last season.
Scoring goals and success had little to do with one another as far as Carlson was concerned. In the 12 games in which he recorded at least one goal, Washington was just 6-4-2; they were 2-1-0 when he recorded a power play goal. And those big ice time totals were an indicator of a sort Caps fans might not like much. Washington was just 6-3-6 in the 15 games in which Carlson logged 27 or more minutes (Only one of those extra time losses came in a Gimmick).
- 700 career NHl games (688; he needs 12)
- 100 career goals (90; he needs 10)
- Top-five in career goals by a defenseman in franchise history (90; he needs eight to tie Scott Stevens (98))
- Top-five in all time power play points by a Capitals defenseman (151; he needs 12 to tie Mike Green (163))
- Second place all time in games played by a Capitals defenseman (688; he needs 38 to tie Rod Langway for second place (726))
- First in all time assists by a defenseman in Capitals history (313; he needs 48 to tie Calle Johansson (361))
- First in all time points by a defenseman in Capitals history (403; he needs 71 to tie Johansson (474))
- Second place in all time plus-minus by a Caps defenseman (plus-80; he needs plus-10 to tie Stevens (plus-90))
- Second place in career game winning goals by a Capitals defenseman (18; he needs two to tie Mike Green (20))
- Top-ten all time in career assists by a Capital (313; he needs 16 to tie Mike Ridley (329))
- Top-ten all time in career points by a Capital (403; he needs 28 to tie Dennis Maruk (431))
- Top-ten all time in power play points by a Capital (151; he needs 31 to tie Scott Stevens (182))
The Big Question… Is John Carlson an “elite” defenseman, or is he merely a “numbers” guy?
We have been here before. In 2008-2009, Mike Green led the league in points by a defenseman with 73. He led the league the following year with 76 points. It was the first time that a defenseman had consecutive seasons with at least 70 points since Nicklas Lidstrom did it with the Detroit Red Wings in 1999-2000 (20-53-73) and 2000-2001 (21-58-79). Only Brent Burns has accomplished the feat since (in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017). Nevertheless, Green, who had more than 30 points (149) more than his closest pursuer over those two seasons (Dan Boyle with 115), did not win a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. He finished second in both seasons, to Zdeno Chara in 2008-2009 and to Duncan Keith in 2009-2010.
At least Green was a finalist in those two seasons. John Carlson led all NHL defensemen in points in 2017-2018 (68, one more than Brent Burns) and finished fourth in points in 2018-2019 (70), but he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting in 2017-2018 and fourth last season. Carlson has not been a defenseman that has merely padded stats with points in bunches. Over the past two seasons, only Brent Burns has points in more games (100) among defensemen than Carlson (97). No defenseman has points in more wins than Carlson (67).
The flip side of this is that Carlson has been on ice for a considerable number of goals against. Part of this is, of course, a product of the ice time he gets, almost 25 minutes per game over the past two seasons combined. Still, only seven defenseman over the last two seasons have been on ice for more goals than Carlson, whose 220 goals against on ice were 45.3 percent of all goals scored against the Caps. Drew Doughty (on ice for 218 goals against) and Brent Burns (199) – two well-thought of defensemen – are in that neighborhood, too, but the job title is “defense”man, too.
Carlson has established himself as an “elite” offensive defenseman, but whatever “it” is that players have to get the attention of Norris Trophy voters, Carlson doesn’t have or has yet to have acquired “it.” He also fights something of a herd mentality among voters for an assortment of NHL individual awards, were once named a finalist, there seems to be a tendency to appear for some years after that, almost out of a sense of momentum as much as performance.
In the end…
Although he has yet to pierce the wall of Norris Trophy finalist consideration, it is not as if John Carlson is not accomplished at his craft and not without having earned recognition. He was a member of the All-NHL Rookie Team first team in 2010-2011(with P.K. Subban), was selected to participate in the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, and was named to the second team of the 2018-2019 NHL All-Star team with Victor Hedman.
Carlson will not turn 30 years old until January, and with his being under contract with the Caps through the 2025-2026 season, he is likely to assemble a body of work in Washington in which he ranks at the top of every meaningful statistical category in franchise history at his position. Fans revel in the accomplishments of Alex Ovechkin, and they respect and appreciate the consistent excellence of Nicklas Backstrom. They also might remember the excitement that Mike “Game Over” Green provided from the blue line. But John Carlson can take his place comfortably as one of the important elements that the Caps needed to win a Stanley Cup in 2018 and will need again in 2020. Caps fans hope he can retrace his steps to individual accomplishment and team success once more, whether or not that accomplishment is appreciated by those who vote on the league’s individual awards.
Projection: 80 games, 13-60-73, plus-20
Photo: Getty Images North America