Friday, January 08, 2021

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.”
-- Conrad Anker

When John Carlson finished the abbreviated 2019-2020 regular season, his 1.09 points per game were the most for a defenseman playing in at least 50 games since 1993-1994, when Ray Bourque (1.26), Sergie Zubov (1.14), and Al MacInnis (1.09) did it.  Of that trio, Bourque won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in 1993-1994.  Carlson, despite a points per game 0.15 points higher than the runner-up, did not.  It was that runner-up – Roman Josi – who won the Trophy, and not in a particularly close vote, by first choice votes cast (Josi had 109, Carlson had 56).  As it was, Carlson’s 75 points (in 69 games) was more than the point totals posted by 20 of the previous 23 Norris winners playing full seasons (does not include the 38 points P.K. Subban posted in the shortened 2012-2013 season).

One might argue that Carlson’s numbers are juiced by playing on a team with more than its share of offensive stars – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov among them.  Nevertheless, the case can be made for Carlson being the top offensive defenseman of this era.  Over the last three seasons he ranks fifth among defensemen in total goals (43), first in assists (170), and first in points (213).  His 0.92 points per game ranks first by a wide margin over Brent Burns in second place (0.83; minimum: 100 games).

Consistent with his status as a core player, the team depends on Carlson to make a difference, and in that respect, his contributions mattered.  The Caps were 10-1-1 in the 12 games in which Carlson recorded a goal, 30-10-4 in the 44 games in which he recorded a point.  Washington was 11-10-4 in the 25 games in which Carlson failed to register a point. 

Odd Carlson Fact…

Massachusetts has a long history of natives going to the NHL and having excellent careers.  John Carlson (born in Natick, MA) has the distinction of ranking second among defensemen born in Massachusetts in career points (478), trailing only Keith Yandle (573), and he is the top-ranked goal scorer (105) among defensemen born in Massachusetts.

Odd Carlson Fact II… John Carlson has logged penalty minutes against every team in the league except the Anaheim Ducks (no penalty minutes in 15 games).

Fearless’ Take…

John Carlson has a reputation of being somewhat lax in his own end of the ice.  It might be fairer to thik of it as “things happen” when Carlson is on the ice.  For instance, no defenseman over the last three seasons had been on the ice for more even strength goals for than Carlson (274). And even though he was on ice for 230 even strength goals against (seventh-most in the league), he was had an on-ice goal differential of plus-44, still tied for tenth-best in the league.

Cheerless’ Take…

“Things happen,” oh yes, they do.  The Caps were 21-18-7 in games in which Carlson was on ice for at least one even strength goal against last season. Only eight defensemen were on ice for more shorthanded goals against (i.e., when the Caps had a power play) than Carlson (five).  Then there is the curious matter of his offense to close last season.  Carlson did not have a goal in his last 18 games (13 regular season, five postseason) on 42 shots, and he had only two goals in his last 38 regular season and postseason games on 98 shots.  It was not the time to go cold.  As to Peerless’ note that the Caps were just 11-10-4 when Carlson did not record a point.  In those 25 games he was a minus player 14 times, a plus player only three times, and he had an aggregate rating of minus-20.  When his offense was not there, the holes on defense became apparent.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 800 career NHL games played (he currently had 757)
  • 400 career assists (373)
  • 500 career points (478)
  • 25 career game-winning goals (would break a tie with Kevin Hatcher for most by a defenseman in team history)
  • Five career empty-net goals (would break a tie with Hatcher and Mike Green for most in team history)

The Big Question… Can John Carlson stay at the summit?

There are changes a’comin’ on the Capitals defense.  Zdeno Chara, Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Paul LaDue all were acquired since the 2019-2020 season ended.  Brenden Dillion was added late last season.  And, complicating the issue is that Michal Kempny, Carlson’s frequent partner since Kempny’s arrival in Washington, will miss much of, if not all of the 2020-2021 regular season recuperating from an Achilles tendon injury.

John Carlson is the anchor, the constant in the defense as the new season begins.  It is considerable pressure for a player who logs a lot of minutes in a lot of situations.  Then again, he is the only defenseman in the NHL over the last three seasons to post at least 65 points in each season (Brent Burns did it twice; five other defensemen did it once).  He still has the offensive skill in teammates surrounding him.  One could reasonably expect Carlson to remain as one of, if not the top offensive defensemen in the league.  But the key to his season, and an important consideration for the team at large, is whether Carlson can tighten up things in his own end.  The new parts might be more vulnerable on the defensive side of the puck than on the offensive side, and there is the matter of new coaching schemes and systems to implement on both sides of the puck.

In the end…

John Carlson has almost 900 regular season (757) and playoff (112) games on his resume.  He will be starting play this season under his sixth head coach.  The combination of his experience and his having to deal with changes behind the bench put him in a good position to continue his run among the best blueliners in the league.  It all places more importance on Carlson, as one of the core elements of the team, to get off to a good start – on both sides of the puck.  There simply is no time to accommodate a “break in” period for a new regime, nor can the Caps afford a carryover of Carlson’s offensive drought to end last season. 

Projection: 56 games, 12-34-46, plus-8