Capitals’ John Carlson Has Been Key to Post-January Playoff Push

It isn’t normal for a team’s leader in assists to fly under the radar, especially for playoff-bound squads like the Washington Capitals. Typically, a certain level of fanfare surrounds players who put up serious numbers, especially when the skater in question is a silky, one-club defenceman of John Carlson’s ilk.

The 32-year-old, into his thirteenth season as a Capital, has been in fine form of late. In his six appearances since Washington’s consecutive no-show defeats against the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild, Carlson has amassed four goals and eight assists, taking his seasonal tally to 67 points (15 goals, 52 assists) through 71 games.

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Carlson’s impact also extends beyond offensive production. He’s Washington’s most accomplished defender and wields considerable locker room influence. The former first-round pick played a key role in picking the team up following their lopsided loss to the Wild, arranging a players-only meeting to steady the ship in D.C.

He lifted the lid on why the crisis talks were held, explaining his keenness to get back to playing playoff-style hockey down the stretch.

“That was the reason for the meetings and the reason we weren’t happy with how we’re playing — because we know that flipping a switch [before Game 1] isn’t an option for us,” Carlson told reporters on Thursday. “We’ve got to feel comfortable and confident in how we play over a long period of time to really build true confidence.”

If the Capitals are to make an impact in the playoffs, Carlson’s role will be seismic. He’s impactful on both sides of the puck for Washington and could be their difference-maker in round one.

How Carlson’s Offensive Impact Revitalised the Capitals

It’s no coincidence that Carlson’s offensive purple patch coincides with Washington’s return to form. Facing off against the Capitals is a completely different proposition when their alternate captain is cooking on gas compared to when he’s off the boil.

Take the Caps’ January tailspin, when they went 1-5-0, for example. Carlson was pointless during Washington’s darkest spell of the season despite racking up 144:52 of ice time through 156 shifts. He also went minus-5 through six games, though it’s worth remembering plus/minus is a flaky stat distorted by on-ice save percentage.

Related: 4 Capitals Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch in 2021-22

Carlson has since rebounded, putting up 35 points (seven goals, 28 assists) in his last 31 appearances. He’s been particularly impactful on the power play since Jan. 28, registering 15 points (three goals, 12 assists).

“It’s always one of those things when you’re scoring as a defenseman, [the puck] just seems to drop a lot more than not,” Carlson said of his recent attacking production. “It’s always been like that for me.”

Beyond his out-and-out point creation, his poise in possession has shifted the needle for Washington down the stretch. Although the Caps ultimately lost 7-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this month, Carlson’s second-period beauty briefly – if seven seconds counts as brief – made the game a contest.

He extended his point and assist streaks to six games last time out against the Montreal Canadiens, marking his longest hot spell of the season. The Massachusetts-born blueliner is also in the midst of the fourth 50-assist season of his career, trailing only Erik Karlsson (five) amongst active NHL defencemen.

Down the stretch, it’s worth keeping an eye on how head coach Peter Laviolette deploys Carlson. If the Capitals’ chase-down of the Pittsburgh Penguins continues, the former 27th overall pick will undoubtedly be asked to soak up a team-leading set of minutes. However, the opposite will be true if Washington starts to fall away in the fight for third in the Metropolitan Division. He’s one to watch.

The Anatomy of Carlson’s Partnership with Martin Fehervary

Carlson’s defensive zone output is also impressive. He breaks even in penalty minute differential and holds an on-ice goals share of 59.6 percent on the season. In other words, he draws as many infractions as he concedes, helping the Caps to dominate their opponents while he’s on the ice.

The 6-foot-3 blueliner also leads the team in ice time (1687) and takeaways (40), a testament to his place on Laviolette’s top pair, first power-play unit, and second set of penalty killers.

Digging into Carlson’s expected goals (xG) data is also illustrative of his defensive impact. He leads Washington defencemen in on-ice xG share with 56.2 percent, slightly below his actual on-ice goals share. However, it’s his off-ice xG rating that tells the story.

The Capitals have a 49.1 percent xG share while Carlson is perched on the bench, evidencing his ability to dictate play from the blueline. In other words, Laviolette’s team tends to lose control of the game without their alternate captain quarterbacking play.  

What’s more, his shift-start locations tell a similar story. Like virtually everyone in the NHL, he begins the majority of his shifts on the fly (56.5 percent). However, that’s the lowest ratio amongst Capitals defencemen – underscoring his importance to the team during high-pressure moments.

Carlson’s relationship with rookie defender Martin Fehervary has also been a bright spot in D.C. this season. They’ve become a formidable pair under Laviolette’s instruction, handling top-pair assignments without fuss.

“Everyone knew his potential and what he can do,” Carlson said of the Slovak earlier this season. “We all see his physical side and his defensive-minded side, but the more and more he gets comfortable, the more and more he’s capable of making high-end plays all over the ice. The more and more he gets comfortable with us, with the team, with his confidence within that, he’s going to be a heck of a player.”

Throughout the season, Laviolette’s Fehrevary-Carlson pair has developed into the perfect blueline partnership. Fehrevary’s defensive mindedness allows Carlson to pinch down low, safe in the knowledge he has adequate coverage behind. The same applies in reverse: Carlson’s ability to make skilled plays takes pressure off Fehrevary to do the same.

The Future is Bright for Carlson

Heading into the playoffs, Carlson is in a strong position. He’s playing high-quality hockey alongside a capable teammate, looks comfortable at even strength, and is relishing his role as the quarterback of Washington’s top power-play unit.

The one-time Stanley Cup champion also has the advantage of avoiding the spotlight. Despite ranking fifth in points amongst NHL defencemen, Carlson isn’t generating Norris Trophy buzz and will therefore slip into the postseason under less pressure than his peers.

The future, then, is bright for Carlson on Washington’s backend. His partner on the blueline is bringing the best out of him, despite his advancing years, at an important stage of the season. The only question is whether the 32-year-old will continue to make his presence known in the playoffs.

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