It feels like it’s been years in the making for Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson, but he’s finally the lead horse in the Norris Trophy race. Season after season of strong performances have got him close to the hardware, but never quite solidified the win. All that seems about to change with his 2019-20 performance.
Only Getting Better
In 2017-18, Carlson set career highs (at the time) with 15 goals and 68 points, while also posting 32 power play points. He finished tied for third in goals by a defenseman, and led the group when it came to total points. He was also unstoppable in the playoffs (20 points in 24 games), as the Capitals claimed their first Stanley Cup as a franchise. Where did he finish in Norris voting? Fifth. Victor Hedman was an understandable winner that season with 17 goals (first among D-men) and 63 points (while posting a plus-32 rating), but for Carlson to get beat by three others? It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t now.
Then we flip the script to the 2018-19 season and another tight Norris race. Mark Giordano claimed the title, and justifiably so, with 17 goals (third among D) and 74 points (second best to Brent Burns). The Calgary Flames rearguard was also an astonishing plus-39, and led the Flames to a dominant campaign out of the Pacific Division. Carlson once again showed why he’s considered one of the best in the game at his position with a new career high of 70 points, but finished in fourth in Norris voting. Another incredible season, but no personal accolades to show for it.
Carlson’s 2019-20 Season
That brief trip down memory lane brings us up to date with the 2019-20 season where Carlson is, yet again, breaking new ground. The recently named All-Star (second appearance) is on pace to shatter his previous totals and has decided that if he’s going to claim a Norris Trophy it’s going to require the extraordinary. What does that look like? First of all, leading the Capitals to first place in the NHL (something that was missing the last two seasons). On the individual side it looks like this:
13 Goals – 39 Assists – 52 Points in 43 Games
Plus-16 Rating & 16 Power Play Points
10.5% Shooting Percentage (Career Average is 6.2%)
The only player within striking distance of Carlson’s offensive fireworks is Roman Josi (14 goals and 44 points), but he’s a considerable distance behind at the moment. The other advantage that Carlson has resides with his team’s success. Washington is leading the NHL’s standings, which bodes well for his stock. The last two Norris winners were on teams that finished in the top three for league standings. In order to solidify your case, you need to contribute to team success as well.
The definition of the Norris Trophy is as follows: “… awarded annually to the National Hockey League’s top defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” The key part of that breakdown being “all-round.” To win the award you need to be solid on both sides of the puck, and Carlson is making his case. He ranks eighth in average ice time per game among all NHL skaters, and trails only Josi from that group in plus/minus rating (plus-19). Carlson’s 25 takeaways edge out Josi’s 16 considerably, and it’s very apparent his game has elevated to another level in 2019-20.
Carlson is currently on pace for 99 points over a full 82-game schedule. The last D-man to post a season with 90-plus points? Ray Bourque in 1993-94. Brian Leetch was the last defenseman to crack the 100-point plateau, having done so in 1992 (102 points). It is absolutely unheard of to see a defenseman on pace for that kind of point total given how talented goaltenders have become. We just finished breaking down “The Top 5 Goaltenders of the Decade” and it’s very perceivable how unbeatable these guys have become. How is it possible Carlson is producing at this level?
One obvious reason behind Carlson’s production: his surroundings. When you have the opportunity to play alongside Alexander Ovechkin (who just hit the 10-year mark as Washington’s captain), Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, it’s going to be difficult to fail. The Capitals have one of the most consistently explosive offensive units in the National Hockey League. Carlson is averaging the fifth-most power play time on ice per game of any NHL skater, so he’s getting plenty of opportunities to inflict damage. During even-strength playing time, Todd Reirden utilizes Carlson with his top forwards extensively as well, with the objective of scoring more even-strength goals.
A second reason for his continuous improvement: he’s adapting to the new NHL game. When you watch No. 74 carefully, you begin to notice that he’s constantly in the right place. The game has adapted and involves more speed and skill than it ever has before. You would assume this could be a problem for a defenseman, but Carlson has actually flipped the script. He utilizes long breakout passes more often, jumps up into the rush constantly and drops down from the point to shoot more when given the chance. His game is adjusting as time progresses, which is allowing him to feast on the chances that are produced.
Into the Spotlight
Backstrom and Carlson are highly regarded as premier talents in the NHL. There is no doubt about that statement. But, it’s also very well known that both of them have taken a back seat when it comes to personal recognition and acknowledgement over the years. Imagine having to play alongside “The Great 8” who may be the greatest goal scorer of all time. It’s nearly impossible, but it seems to finally be the time for the Capitals’ backbone to enjoy the spotlight. Carlson has emerged from the shadows and is fully in charge here in 2020.
If the Capitals’ play continues on its current trajectory, and Carlson continues producing at a similar clip, there is no doubt he will be adding the James Norris Memorial Trophy to his collection. He’s paid his dues, he’s helped the Capitals win four straight division titles (including two Presidents’ Trophies), and he has his name on the Stanley Cup. It’s only been a matter of time before he earned the spot as top blueliner, and it seems that time has finally come.