John Carlson’s claim to fame is scoring the gold medal winning goal in the 2009 World Junior Championships against Canada. He is now referred to as the “Real American Hero”. Well the Real American Hero made his NHL debut a season ago. And despite being just 19 years of age, Carlson made an instant impact on the Capitals blueline. Most notably was his +11 rating in 22 games. Carlson was arguably the Capitals’ best defenseman in the playoffs as well. Carlson’s 2nd career NHL was the game tying goal late in game 2 against the Canadiens. Carlson then led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship.
But that was last season. What about this season? Still technically a rookie, Carlson is looking more like a veteran on the blueline. He is poised, physical, and gaining the confidence of the Capitals’ coaching staff each and every game. John Carlson is averaging 21:58 of ice time. That is good for second on the Capitals team, trailing only Mike Green. From a league leader standpoint, Carlson is 2nd amongst all rookies in ice time, trailing just Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks. So without a doubt Carlson is getting plenty of ice time. How does his performance on the ice compare to the rest of the Capitals’ defensive corps. I will break it down by play at even strength, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. Disclaimer: minimum 10 games played.
It is important to note that the following statistics are based on 60 minutes of playing time. John Carlson is averaging 17:03 of even strength ice time per game. That is good for 3rd best among defenseman. First his offensive output. Everybody knows how dangerous Mike Green is with the puck. He is the best puck moving, offensively minded defenseman in the NHL. Despite the fact that he as just one point since November 14, he is still the cream of the crop. John Carlson has a similar makeup to Mike Green. Since before he was drafted in 2008, Carlson has had the reputation of being a great puck mover with tremendous offensive upside. He has a great shot, he’s a great skater, and a distributor. Carlson is showing off these on a nightly basis in Washington. Through the first third of the season, Carlson has the 3rd highest points per 60 average of any Caps defenseman, 1.14. With Carlson on the ice, the Capitals are scoring 2.80 goals per 60 minutes. That is second on the team, trailing only John Erskine who leads with 2.97. Yes, John Erskine. Having the third best Quality of Teammates rating certainly helps in this regard, but it is clear that when Carlson is on the ice, the Capitals are producing offensively.
What about the defensive side of the puck. Afterall, Carlson is a defenseman by trade. These numbers are even more indicative of my claim that he is currently the Caps’ best defenseman. John Carlson is first among Caps defenseman in Relative Plus/Minus (1.03), goals against while on the ice per 60 minutes (1.97), On ice team save percentage (.922), On ice Corsi rating (13.78), relative Corsi rating (8.3), and last but not least, leads all defenseman in the percentage of shifts taken that end in the Capitals being in the offensive zone (54.4%). This last stat is indicative of how good Carlson has been at moving the puck out of the defensive zone and distributing the puck to the forwards so they can do their work in the offensive zone. It should also be pointed out that Carlson takes less than one penalty per 60 minutes of play.
Under the tutelage of Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals have never finished a season below the 25% mark. Despite their recent struggles (1-18), the Capitals are still 8th best in league power play percentage. It is just a matter of time before they regain their stride and make opponents pay on the man advantage. Carlson has seen his minutes on the power play rise as well. With Mike Green taking the most minutes (as he should) on the power play, there aren’t a lot of minutes to go around. Carlson finds himself second to Mike Green in power play minutes, averaging 1.76 minutes per 60 minutes. Carlson is making the most of the minutes he’s being given. His points/60 is second best among Capitals defenseman, despite going against better competition than all with the exception of Tom Poti. His relative +/- is best on the team. Carlson plays the point with Alex Ovechkin, usually on the second unit. Remember that Ovechkin typically will play the entire two minutes on the power play. Carlson continues to improve his distribution of the puck, and with shot like his, points will mount if given the opportunity.
The penalty kill is the area in which Carlson needs the most improvement. That said, he is putting up respectable numbers on the penalty kill. His on ice Corsi rating is 3rd best, as is his relative Corsi rating. The important thing to point out is that Carlson has the highest Quality of Competition rating of any Caps defenseman on the PK, in conjunction with that he has the second worst Quality of Teammate rating. It makes things extra difficult when your seeing the best of what your opponents have to offer, and you are playing with your teams weakest guys. But that is part of the punishment of taking penalties. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as most team’s PKers are made up of 3rd and 4th line energy guys. But it is still worth noting.
John Carlson is without question a key piece to the overall defensive play of the Capitals. The much talked about “weakness” is certainly much improved since seasons past. Boudreau has been making strides in implementing a more defensively sound system. In my opinion, a key to the recent struggles the Caps have faced. Tweaking a system doesn’t happen overnight, but the reward of executing it properly could be huge. John Erskine is having his best season since joining the Capitals five seasons ago. Karl Alzner has ramped up his play as of yet. I believe much of Carlson’s success can be attributed to being partners with Karl Alzner. They’ve played together in Hershey as well, winning two Calder Cups. Mike Green isn’t producing the offensive numbers we are accustomed to seeing. But who is? Ovechkin and Backstrom’s numbers are down as well. The addition of Scott Hannan I believe will still be a net positive. He was brought in for the latter stages of the regular season and the playoffs. He needs time to gain chemistry with his defensive partner, of which should be noted is often a different player each night. He too needs time to adjust to the Eastern Conference and the Boudreau’s systems.
All in all the defensive play has improved. The numbers seem to indicate the Carlson is playing a major role. So much so that he is currently the Capitals’ best defenseman.
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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.