The Washington Capitals are known for their offensive prowess and physical presence. Of recent, their intimidation has lost its luster, especially during the postseason. If physicality was as much of a factor as the analysts claim, then the Capitals would have had much more success in the playoffs. The team can’t rely on forceful tactics if opponents possess no worry of such. With that in mind, their defense needs to get better in other aspects of the game, and that starts with their blueline leader, John Carlson.
A Better Carlson Means a Better Capitals
Carlson, 31, is entering his 12th full season, 13th overall, as a Capital. In 2018, the defenseman signed a massive eight-year, $64 million deal with Washington. That contract demands an average annual value of $8 million against the cap through 2025-26. Carlson has proven he’s worth the money at times. Since his re-signing, his goals, assists and overall point total have increased. He registered 13 goals and 57 assists in 2018-19, was on an 82-game pace to set career highs in goals (18), assists (71) and points (89) in 2019-20, and last season’s shortened campaign would have been comparable to his 2017-18 and 2018-19 years if given a full sample.
For his career, he’s accrued 115 goals, 407 assists and a plus-87 rating in 809 games. Carlson was also a Norris Trophy finalist in 2019-20, finishing second to Roman Josi. Rod Langway is the only Capital to earn the award, winning back-to-back trophies in 1983 and 1984. In their 47 seasons, five Washington defensemen have been nominated: Langway, Larry Murphy, Scott Stevens, Mike Green, and Carlson.
With the questions that surround the Capitals’ defense, most notably on the left side of the ice, Carlson needs to once again become a Norris candidate if the Capitals want to make a deep playoff run.
Washington finished 17th in the NHL with a 2.88 goals-against average last year. Only one other playoff team had a worse mark than that. The Montreal Canadians posted a 2.90 average. Of course, the Canadians made the Stanley Cup Final and Washington bowed out in the first round.
Carlson’s plus-minus rating was the second-worst of his career at minus-five, and it was only the third season he was below zero, the last coming in 2013-14. Also, Carlson was on an 82-game pace to allow 107 goals by opponents while on the ice, which would have been third-worst in his career. He also let skaters rack up shots in front of the net, and his blocks and takeaways have steadily decreased each season.
Of course, Carlson is more of an offensive-minded defenseman, which may be the reason he didn’t take home the Norris in 2020. He finished sixth among defensemen in points last season and played fewer games than the skaters in the top five except Cale Makar. He also scored more goals than all five. In 2017-18 and 2019-20, he led all NHL defensemen in points and finished fourth in 2018-19. If Carlson’s offensive stats are compared to perennial Norris-finalist Victor Hedman, he has outperformed Tampa Bay’s star defenseman four of the last five seasons.
Yet, his defense needs to improve to fill both his and the Capitals’ trophy case.
Carlson’s even-strength play needs to continue to get stronger. The Capitals have one of the most potent offenses in the league, especially when given a man advantage. Carlson has increased his even-strength productivity in the last four seasons. In both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, 47% of the defenseman’s points came via the power play. In 2019-20 that number decreased to 35%, and last season it was at 34%.
His even-strength possession rate has remained above 50 the last three seasons, so the consistency is there. While the Capitals depend on the power play at times, this bodes well for Washington. If Carlson can remain reliable at even-strength on the offensive end, then the team will have another solid regular season. Considering the top defensive pairing will be Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, look for Carlson to increase his numbers. Orlov has had a better possession rate than his linemate the last two seasons and has increased his point production and plus-minus rating.
Beyond the first line, however, lies the uncertainty. If the second and third defensive pairings falter in production, expect Peter Laviolette to switch Orlov for better balance.
Lastly, Carlson needs to perform better in the postseason. The Capitals always have a great regular season, but when the playoffs begin, the skaters seem to run out of steam or fall into a slump at the worst possible time.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Carlson has posted a minus-13 rating the subsequent three trips to the playoffs and hasn’t recorded a goal. His even-strength possession rate has dropped to 44% in each of those postseasons, and his power-play reliance to get points increased to a whopping 77%.
John Carlson’s 2021-22 Season Outlook
A full season and being paired with Dmitry Orlov will help Carlson’s production. From an offensive perspective, look for him to score around 15 goals and 70-plus points. If Evgeny Kuznetsov can escape his slump this season, those numbers may shoot up to around 20 goals and 80 points, especially if the power play is clicking at a high level. Carlson is more than capable of being a Norris-finalist once again.
It won’t be easy considering the young talent that is emerging on the blue line across the league, but if he can improve his defense, he may take home the trophy this season. The Capitals as a whole may take one home as well if that’s the case.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?” and, “When will this damn Sabres rebuild finally end?”
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