“Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be
worthy of recognition.”
-- Abraham Lincoln
Washington Capitals fans of this era have seen John Carlson grow up as a hockey player. It started in 2008, when the Capitals used a first round draft pick obtained from the Philadelphia Flyers on draft day (for defenseman Steve Eminger and a third round draft pick) for the purpose of selecting Carlson from the Indiana Ice of the USHL. That was a draft day trade that went a whole lot better than the other one they made and the player they targeted. Carlson played for one season with the London Knights, posting an impressive 16-60-76, plus-23 scoring line, hinting at what was to come. He moved up to the Hershey Bears, first in the Calder Cup playoffs in 2009, and then in the 2009-2010 season in which he was 4-35-39 in 48 games. He also got his first taste of NHL action, going 1-5-6 in 22 games. But in the midst of that season, there was this international moment:
The following season, 2010-2011, Carlson took his place as a regular in the Caps lineup. Since then, he has established himself among the elite offensive defensemen in the NHL. Over his ten full seasons, he is one of three defensemen to have posted at least 100 goals (104), 450 points (472), and posted a plus-minus rating of at least plus-50 (plus-81). The others are Kris Letang (106/352/plus-71) and Victor Hedman (101/453/plus-119). Carlson is the only defenseman to have posted more than 200 points over the last two seasons (213), has more even strength points (122), has more power play points (91), and has more game-winning goals than any other defenseman (11).
Carlson finished the 2019-2020 season as the all-time leader in career points by a Capitals defensemen (478) and assists (373); he finished tied with Keven Hatcher for most game-winning goals by a defenseman in Caps history (24). He also commands a high rank in games played (757/2nd), plus-minus (plus-92/2nd), even strength goals (77/3rd), power play goals (27/7th), and power play points (177/4th).
Mike Green set the standard of production for defensemen in the post-2004-2005 lockout period, averaging 1.07 points per game in 68 games for the Caps in 2008-2009. That is, until this season. John Carlson averaged 1.09 points per game, most among defensemen appearing in at least 50 games in a season since Ray Bourque averaged 1.26 points per game in 1993-1994. Carlson was on a pace to finish the season with a scoring line of 18-71-89 when the season was ended early, a whisker shy of being the first defenseman to post 90 or more points in a season since Bourque’s 1993-1994 season (91). He was not only the only defenseman in the league to post 60 assists, he was the only one to post more than 50 (Roman Josi had 49 for Nashville). His six game-winning goals led the league, and no defenseman has had more in a single season since Ray Bourque in 1992-1993 (seven).
No defenseman in the league was on ice for more even strength goals scored for than John Carlson (89). On the other hand, only six defensemen were on the ice for more even strength goals scored against than Carlson (72). His even-strength goal differential of plus-17 was tied with the likes of Vince Dunn, Brandon Carlo, and Philippe Myers, none of whom have been mentioned as Norris Trophy finalists. Even with respect to the offense, while it was impressive overall, it was a front-loaded affair. Carlson had 36 points in his first 24 games of the season, 39 points in his last 45 games of the season.
Odd Carlson Fact… When John Carlson finished the 2019-2020 season with 75 points, he became the sixth American defenseman in NHL history to post 75 or more points at least once and the second Capital defenseman on that list (Kevin Hatcher).
Odd Carlson Fact II… John Carlson is the all-time goal scoring leader among defensemen with Massachusetts being their point of origin (105). He is second in that group in career plus-minus (plus-92), trailing only Mike Milbury (plus-175).
Odd Carlson Fact III… John Carlson skated in all 69 games for the Caps this season, and in all 69 games he logged at least 20 minutes of ice time. The last time Carlson skated less than 20 minutes was January 15, 2019, when he skated 18:35 in a 7-2 loss to the Nashville Predators. He has a streak of 104 consecutive games skating 20 or more minutes.
Game to Remember… February 23, 2020. When the Pittsburgh Penguins visited the Caps at Capital One Arena for a Sunday matinee, one defenseman was assured of reaching a milestone. Penguin defenseman Kris Letang was appearing in his 800th career NHL game. Another defenseman was on the brink of a milestone. John Carlson entered the game tied with Calle Johansson for most career points by a Capitals defenseman (474). He seemed a good bet to do it, if not in this game then soon, having posted 11 points in his previous ten games after going consecutive games without a point for the first time in the 2020 portion of the season.
The Caps scored early, getting an unassisted goal from Jakub Vrana in the seventh minute. The Pens took the lead in the second period with a pair of goals. Tom Wilson tied the game in the second minute of the third period. It set the stage for the milestone point by Carlson three minutes later. Richard Panik collected a loose puck in the right wing corner and fed it to Carlson at the right point. Carlson got off a shot that goalie Matt Murray gloved down, but did not control. Lars Eller did and got a chance, but it was stopped by Murray. Carl Hagelin found the loose puck at the top of the crease and finished the play to give the Caps a lead once more. Carlson earned the secondary assist on the play to break his tie with Calle Johansson for most points by a defenseman in Capitals history.
Game to Forget… December 31, 2019. Sometimes, hockey can be equal parts cruel and frustrating. It was both for John Carlson on New Year’s Eve, when the Caps hosted the New York Islanders. The Isles started the scoring in the eighth minute on a Casey Cizikas goal. Carlson was on the ice for that one…and the next one three minutes later by Brock Nelson… and the second Cizikas goal less than five minutes into the second period… and the Tom Kuhnhackl goal eight minutes later that would prove to be the game-winner. Carlson was on ice for each of the Islanders’ four goals, which he experienced over a span of only 14 shifts, while at the other end of the ice he led the team with six shots on goal (all unsuccessful) and 14 shot attempts, failing to record a point in the 4-3 loss.
Hockey teams are notoriously reticent about revealing the nature and severity of injuries, but one has to think that John Carlson, who suffered an injury when he got tangled up with Nino Niederreiter of the Carolina Hurricanes in an exhibition game, was less than 100 percent for the games in which he participated. He was held out of the entire round-robin phase to determine seeding, and while he did skate in all five games of the Caps’ opening round loss to the Islanders and posted six assists in the effort, he still finished a minus-11 in the five games. As of Saturday, Carlson remains the only skater in the postseason to be on ice for 10 or more even strength goals against (10) and no even strength goals for, and his minus-10 even strength goal differential is worst in the league among all skaters.
John Carlson has six more seasons under his current eight-year/$64 million contract that has no trade clauses attached to it (capfriendly). That contract takes Carlson to age 36. He is the top defenseman in the Capitals’ system, and there is little reason to think that he will be anything but the top defenseman over the remainder of his contract with the club. That is, in part, a reflection of his talent and standing among the league’s defensemen, but it is also a reflection of the lack of depth at the position in the developmental areas of the organization.
In the end…
John Carlson is a core player, one who might be as irreplaceable, at least in the near term, as any other player on the Capitals roster. Top pair defensemen are gold in the NHL, and for the faults he has in the defensive end from time, he has been an elite level defenseman for a while now (fifth in Norris Trophy voting two seasons ago, fourth last year as well as a second team all-star, and a Norris finalist this season). His continuing to perform as an elite defenseman is a non-negotiable element in the formula for Caps success.
Photo: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports