As the season winds down, there’s plenty of talk about who should be awarded the Calder Trophy for the NHL's top rookie. Typically, forwards have an advantage because they rack up the stats everyone is familiar with (goals, assists and points) but the last two years, goalie Steve Mason and blueliner Tyler Myers have won the award. This year it looks like a forward -- most likely Jeff Skinner of Carolina or Logan Couture from San Jose -- will bring home the hardware, but rookie Capitals defenseman John Carlson deserves some consideration as a finalist.

The offensive production by Skinner and Couture has been impressive, with each tallying 50-plus point seasons in comparison to Carlson's 37. One way to level the playing field, though, is to look at how these players’ teams perform when they are on the ice at even strength:

SkaterTeamGoals for per 60 minutesGoals against per 60 minutesDifference
Logan CoutureS.J2.571.341.23
John CarlsonWSH2.911.911.00
Jeff SkinnerCAR3.312.730.58

Skinner can produce points, but he’s a defensive liability despite playing “soft” minutes. We can judge the quality of minutes played by using Behind the Net's QualComp metric , which shows who is playing against the opposition's best players by averaging out the points-per-game of opposing players. If we limit the rosters to players with 40 or more games played, Carlson has seen the fourth-toughest minutes of any Washington skater, while Skinner (11th) and Couture (9th) have seen much weaker opposition.

Carlson not only plays tougher minutes, he plays more of them. He leads all rookies in time on ice and is in the top 25 for all NHL skaters. Carlson is also trusted in the defensive zone, starting nearly 418 shifts there, more than both Skinner (266) and Couture (297). It's easy to underestimate the importance of starting in the defensive zone . Even after winning a defensive-zone draw, a team will allow more shots on goal in the next 30 seconds than if it had lost a faceoff in the neutral zone. That’s why coaches only use those players they can trust in those situations.

Carlson may be a long shot to make the top three finalists, but when we look at his performance in the right context, it’s clear that he does at least as much – if not more – to help his team win games than either of the two favorites.

Neil Greenberg also writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks. Follow him on Twitter: @ngreenberg.