For Carlson, a serious injury at the NHL level was a foreign experience. At the time, he had played 412 consecutive games, and while he may have been banged up during that stretch, he didn’t miss any time. Following a 12-game absence, he returned to the lineup before the all-star break, but the team’s top defenseman entering the season hasn’t looked the same in the 11 games he’s been back.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Carly because he was trying to get back so quickly after that,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “You can tell it was affecting his play. Even when he came back, he didn’t have the same pop. I respect him for coming back as quickly as he did to try to help a defensive corps that was pretty banged up, him included. That’s probably the thing you respect the most.
“I think it’s been a little bit of an adjustment period because what happens when you get an injury like his, even your posture and how you skate is a little different. He seems to be a little straight-legged a little bit more at times. It’s starting to come back now, as you get deeper and further away from your injury. It does affect your gait, in terms of how you skate, which affects your passing skills, which affects everything. Everything just gets off. It’s like having a rib out. You know, you just don’t have the same gait or you don’t move as fluidly. He’s starting to come.”
For Carlson, returning to the lineup was just as unusual an experience to him as getting injured.
“It’s just one of those things that you just work as hard as you can,” Carlson said. “There’s an adjustment period and then there’s a few just different stages of what happens when you get back, obviously depending on the injury and all of that kind of stuff, like setbacks. It’s just one of those things where you just bury your head and do whatever you can. You try your hardest and rehab as much as you can to get yourself feeling 100 percent.”
Before suffering the injury on Dec. 26 against Montreal, Carlson was one of the more productive defensemen in the league, posting six goals and 21 assists. A greater offensive role was expected of him after the offseason departure of Mike Green, and Carlson continued to quarterback the top power-play unit. He was playing the most minutes on the team, and on the top penalty killing unit.
He’s a plus-one since he’s been back and has had four assists, two of which have come on the power play. He ranks fifth among the Capitals’ defensemen in goals against per 60 (1.93) at even strength, and he’s last in goals for per 60 minutes (2.31) at even strength, per stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
Carlson compared returning from an injury to coming into training camp, when the first few practices and preseason games “feel a little weird.” The issue is that in training camp, everyone is at the same level, unlike at this juncture of the season.
“I think it kind of changes game by game,” Carlson said. “I know my timing was fine the first game and then maybe games three and four, the timing felt off, but something else felt better. It’s just one of those things where you get your legs underneath you and put everything together. There’s so many moving parts on the ice that, whether it’s read and react or your hands or reading the play or pinching in the right scenarios.
“There are all sorts of things that fall under timing, so in some games you might be really good at breaking the puck out and getting back to your partner and that kind of stuff. But then the next game, you might be terrible at that, but you were terrible with your pinches the first game, where you couldn’t read if it’s a sure thing to go or not go or hesitate on rushes and then it changes. It changes even when everything’s good, too. It’s just one of those things where you do your best to get better at in every area and see improvement.”
Said Trotz: “Carly is continually taking the next step to be one of the top defensemen that he was at the peak of his game. I don’t think he’s there yet, and I think he realizes that. I’m pretty confident that between him and [assistant coach Todd Reirden] and that, he’s got a really good learning curve and wants to be a real top player. He’ll get back to that peak that we know he can.”