Heading into this season, John Carlson knew that the best way for him to make his case to USA Hockey officials that he belonged on the 2014 Olympic roster was to continue earning more responsibility with the Capitals.
Carlson has led Washington in ice time and handled the toughest matchups the NHL has to offer every night through the first three months of the season, and his work did not go unnoticed. He was one of eight defensemen named Wednesday to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Sochi, Russia, in February.
“It’s obviously an honor to play for your country,” said Carlson, who was born in Massachusetts but spent the majority of his childhood in New Jersey. “Getting a chance to play for my country — I’ve only done it twice before. It’s just a whole other level.”
For Coach Adam Oates, who has been lobbying for Carlson’s inclusion since the summer, it was a no-brainer.
“He’s one of the best defensemen in the league,” Oates said. “He plays a lot of minutes, plays physical, he’s got an unlimited tank. He plays every situation, can do anything you ask of him.”
This is the first time Carlson, 23, has been named to an Olympic roster. He last represented the United States in the 2010 World Junior Championships in which he scored the overtime-winner in the gold medal game. He also becomes the first Capitals player to earn a spot on the U.S. team since NHL players have been allowed to participate in the Olympics beginning in 1998.
In the four years since that international appearance, Carlson has established himself as arguably Washington’s top defenseman. As injuries befell Mike Green and the Capitals leaned on Carlson in recent years, he took an increased role in stride. This season he’s averaging a career high 24 minutes 41 seconds of ice time per night, a team high by more than a minute, and has shown consistency in his play on a game-to-game basis.
“This is the biggest year in terms of [consistency],” Carlson said. “I’ve always played a decent amount and against top players but I feel like a little more onus is upon me now and I like it. I think I’ve done a good job but I know I can certainly get better too.”
Said U.S. General Manager David Poile to reporters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Wednesday: “This year his game has transitioned from somewhat of a defensive defenseman to a two way defenseman. He leads the NHL I believe in shorthanded minutes with a team that’s pretty good on the penalty killing and is offensive game has gone way up.”
His ice time ranks 20th in the league, but of those who play that much Carlson is the only one who also averages 4 minutes of shorthanded time per game. He plays an average of 2:40 per night on the power play as well and has recorded seven goals and 15 points. Carlson’s ability to serve both as part of a shutdown pairing and offensive catalyst in just his fourth full NHL season is part of the reason why Oates says he’s “ahead of the curve” with his development.
“You mature, you get better. Some guys plateau some guys get better. He has gotten better and better, more responsibility he’s been able to handle it and he’s done a great job with it,” said Oates, who knows that this recognition means a lot to any player. “It’s another feather in your cap that you’ve moved up a notch maybe from being a regular player to being regarded as a little more special of a player.”