“The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what
-- Conrad Anker
Over the last four seasons, John Carlson has been the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, period. Third in goals scored (53), first in assists (204, 27 more than Brent Burns), first in points (257, 33 more than Burns), first in points per game (0.91, among 179 players dressing for at least 150 games), 106 power play points (nine more than Victor Hedman), tied for first in game-winning goals (12, with Alex Pietrangelo), first in goals for on-ice at even strength (328, 13 more than Darnell Nurse). It isn’t even that Carlson leads in so many categories as much as there are a number of defensemen who are in second behind him. There is no clear “second-best” to challenge Carlson as an offensive defenseman over this period (although Cale Makar will be a worthy challenger as he builds his resume). Carlson is the only defenseman in the last four seasons to record 70 or more points twice. He has been a top-five vote getter for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman three times in the last four years, a finalist once (second in 2019-2020).
Odd Carlson Fact… If John Carlson appears in all 82 games this season, it will be the sixth time he did so, tying Karl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom (assuming he does not) for the all-time franchise lead.
Odd Carlson Fact II… If Carlson post 50 or more assists, it will be the fourth season he did so, breaking a tie with Scott Stevens for the all-time lead in that category with the Caps.
Fearless’ Take… Although some might think John Carlson had an “off” year last season, especially after two 70-point seasons, he averaged 0.5 goals per 60 minutes, the second consecutive season in which he did so and a career best. And despite his averaging his lowest ice time (23:47) since 2016-2017 (2:43), he still finished tied for fifth among defensemen in goals (10), tied for seventh in assists (34), tied for fifth in points (44), tied for tenth in power play points (15), and tied for first in first goals in games (three). And, he was very stingy with the puck, averaging only 1.01 giveaways per 60 minutes, by far a career low (1.58 in 2013-2014).
Cheerless’ Take… John Carlson had his first negative plus-minus rating (minus-5) since he was a minus-3 in 2013-2014. His 3.34 blocked shots per 60 minutes last season were a career low. His goal differential at even strength (even, 54 for and 54 against) was his third worst in his career (he has had only two minus seasons in this category, none since 2013-2014 (minus-2)). Carlson also had a difficult time drawing penalties. The 0.19 penalties he drew per 60 minutes last season were the second lowest of his career (0.18 in 22 games in his first year with the Caps in 2009-2010).
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…
- 200 career power play points (currently 192)
- 30 career game-winning goals (25)
- 300 career penalty minutes (270)
The Big Question… Have we seen “peak” John Carlson in terms of his offensive production?
John Carlson has been the best offensive defenseman in the league over the past four seasons, but last season saw some slippage. Small, and perhaps understandable given the seasons that preceded it, but seemingly there nonetheless. Part of that might have been due to injury that he might have suffered, a cracked kneecap that might have occurred in a late-season game against the New York Islanders. He was 0-4-4, even, in nine regular and postseason games to close the season after that incident. In that context, last season, especially how it ended, could be regarded as a speed bump for Carlson. On the other hand, he will turn 32 years old in January and has a lot of mileage in terms of ice time on his resume.
One thing to watch for is if his scoring touch returns. He did not have a goal in his last 15 regular season games (on 35 shots) or his five playoff games. (on eight shots). There is also the matter of his being a distributor. His 0.8 primary assists per 60 minutes was the third highest of his career, but it was down from the previous two seasons (1.0 in 2018-2019 and 1.3 in 2019-2020). Carlson is an important cog in the Caps’ arsenal, and if he can regain the elite level of production he displayed in the two seasons preceding last year’s effort, the Caps will be in fine position to reach the postseason and perhaps make a deep run when the flowers bloom in the spring.
In the end…
The Caps are deep in scoring at forward, both in terms of numbers and variety. Nicklas Backstrom, when healthy, is the trigger man. Alex Ovechkin is the finisher. T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson go into difficult areas to score goals. Anthony Mantha could prove to be able to hold his own in this group. The third and fourth lines have the capacity to chip in more offense than comparable units on other teams. But on defense, it is pretty much John Carlson. Dmitry Orlov has shown flashes of being a contributor, but a quarterback on offense he is not. Justin Schultz could provide some of that contribution, but reliably and consistently? That is an open question. John Carlson being “John Carlson” is an indispensable element in the Capitals’ hopes for this season. Whether he can climb back to the performance summit he achieved before last season will be one of the story lines as the season unfolds.
Projection: 80 games, 16-53-69, even