“The years teach much which the days never know.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
John Carlson might be the best offensive defenseman in recent memory never to have won a Norris Trophy. And if anything, he has been even more dominant in recent years. For example, he is one of eight defensemen to have recorded at least one 70-point season over the last four years and the only one to do it more than once (three times). Oh, and note here that six of the other seven defensemen on that list have won Norris Trophies. The best Carlson did in Norris Trophy voting was a second-place finish in 2019-2020 (Josi won in that season).
Odd Carlson Fact… With as many NHL players that were born in Massachusetts (210, according to hockey-reference.com), Carlson is the only one to have been born in Natick. He is all-time leader in goals scored by a defenseman born in Massachusetts (132), second in assists (461, trailing only Keith Yandle (516)), second in points (593, trailing only Yandle (619)), and second in plus-minus rating (plus-100, trailing only Mike Milbury (plus-175, the leader among all players born in Massachusetts).
Fearless’ Take… It is one thing to be an offensive defenseman, it is better to be one who matters in terms of outcomes. The Caps were 13-2-1 in the 16 games in which Carlson scored a goal last season, 34-9-6 in the 49 games in which he recorded a point. Heavy ice time burdens did not seem to be very disagreeable to him or the Caps, who went 12-5-5 in 22 games in which he logged at least 25 minutes while he went 6-19-25, plus-9, in those 22 games, posting points in 14 of them (seven multi-point games).
Cheerless’ Take… Carlson is no shrinking violet, but neither is he noteworthy as a “physical” defenseman. Good thing, perhaps. When he was credited with two or more hits last season, the Caps were just 10-9-3. And shooting the puck is not the same as scoring. When he had three or more shots on goal, the Caps were just 22-15-3. They were 5-1-1 in the seven games in which he did not record a shot on goal.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023
- 900 career games (he has 887)
- 500 career assists (461)
- 200 career power play assists (180)
- 600 career points (593)
- 300 career penalty minutes (290)
- All-time leader among Capitals defensemen in goals scored (132; Kevin Hatcher had 149)
- All-time leader in power play points by a Capitals defenseman (217; Calle Johansson had 228).
The Big Question… Will John Carlson be able to quarterback the power play without the “high-risk” element of shorthanded chances the other way?
Last season, the Caps allowed nine shorthanded goals, tied for sixth-most in the league. John Carlson was on ice for eight of them. It mattered. The Caps were 1-6-1 in the eight games in which Carlson was on ice for a shorthanded goal against. Over the last four seasons, while he was putting up three 70-point seasons, he was on ice for 23 shorthanded goals against, more than any defenseman in the league. The Caps were 6-15-2 in those games. Yes, he was still a plus-122 in power play goal differential on-ice over that span, but allowing shorthanded goals can be an especially deflating occurrence, as the win-loss record when on ice for a shorthanded goal against illustrates.
Perhaps the problem is in Carlson’s power play ice time load. More time, more opportunities for bad things to happen. And Carlson led the league in power play ice time per game last season among defensemen (3:59). He is tied for the lead in power play ice time per game over the last four seasons (3:53, with Cale Makar, although Makar has played in 101 fewer games over that span).
The difficulty in considering how the risk-reward matter might be addressed might lie in the Caps’ power play scheme. Their 1-3-1 formation seems to place an emphasis on a right-handed shot at the top of the offensive zone (recall that Mike Green, Carlson’s predecessor in the power play from that position, was also a right-handed defenseman). Washington has two other right-handed shots on the parent roster at the moment – Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk – neither of whom is generally thought of as a power play sort of defenseman (they combined for less than 15 minutes between them in power play ice time last season). Ryan Chesley, drafted this past summer, is a right-handed defenseman, but he is perhaps years from making the team, let alone getting power play time. For the time being, Carlson looks like the man, with the risk that accompanies that.
In the end…
It is one thing to get little respect from Norris Trophy voters in recent years, but Caps fans seem to have a curious streak of negativity when it comes to Carlson, rooted in his play in the defensive end. It can sometimes be an adventure, but 42 defensemen were on ice for more even strength goals against last season, including some well-known and widely respected players (Mark Giordano, Kris Letang, Alex Pietrangelo, Dougie Hamilton, Victor Hedman, and Roman Josi among them). But the Caps are 513-267-107 in games in which Carlson dressed over his career (a 47-win, 104-standings points pace). It is not as if he was an insurmountable obstacle to success with play in his own end and whatever shortcomings he might have there. The years have taught Caps fans that John Carlson is on a short list of best offensive defensemen of his generation, and if the odd day creeps in when he makes a mistake, those days seem sufficiently rare that his reputation as a top defenseman should not suffer.
Projection: 82 games, 14-56-70, plus-12