John Carlson doesn’t seem to have noticed that he has been playing with Christian Djoos more than any other defenseman lately.
“Oh, really?” Carlson asked.
That’s how subtle the shift has been, but it represents a bigger-picture plan for the Washington Capitals. Over the past nine games, since Djoos returned to the lineup from a suspected concussion, Carlson has played 84:48 in five-on-five situations with the 23-year-old rookie and 75:15 without him, according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s a change from the start of the season when Carlson was skating mostly with veteran Brooks Orpik, and the ratio could continue to tip in Djoos’s favor.
In those 84-plus minutes Djoos and Carlson were on the ice together recently, the Capitals took 56.2 percent of the shot attempts, and the pair was scored on just once. Since Djoos made the roster out of training camp, Washington’s plan was to gradually work him up to more responsibility, perhaps to the level of regularly playing in the team’s top four beside Carlson.
“With that pairing, they’re both real gifted offensively,” associate coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s kind of fun to watch and use them with some of our groups of forwards.”
At first, Djoos was deployed almost exclusively in offensive zone situations and sheltered from playing against opponents’ top lines. If the Capitals were protecting a lead, Orpik might play with Carlson more, while Djoos and Carlson typically play when the team is trying to generate more offense. Though Djoos has played just 25 NHL games, the coaching staff has begun to trust him to the point where he is starting to see the ice in more varied situations.
“I like how he’s responded so far,” Reirden said. “When you’re dealing with young players, and especially defensemen in that situation, you always have a plan in place, but you’re not really sure how quickly they get through each of the kind of the individual segments that I have set up for them, so that they’re prepared for each scenario.
“The last eight or nine games, he has been used differently, and he knows that. That’s the next challenge that he needs to continue to succeed in, and we’ll continue to move him into different roles from there. He’s been up to the challenge thus far.”
There was initially some concern about how Djoos would physically handle the grind of his first NHL season. At 6-feet and 169 pounds, he is undersized for a defenseman, and while his best trait is his patience with the puck, he often has to be careful about how long he holds onto it because he can’t absorb as many hits as other players. He has missed just six games this season with injury, compensating for his size with skill and smarts. While Djoos is still getting to know the league and teams’ personnel in his first season, Orpik has been a guide before every game, pointing out which players are likely to finish their checks late so Djoos can be aware of them.
“Well, he rocked someone last game. Big boy, too,” Carlson said, referring to Djoos’s hit on 6-foot-3 Anaheim forward Dennis Rasmussen.
While defense pairs have frequently rotated in games this season, the blue line duos had largely been stagnant in the first three seasons under Coach Barry Trotz. It helped that Washington had the healthiest roster in the league, but Orpik thought that predictability ultimately hurt the team in the playoffs. After Karl Alzner got hurt, the pairs became fluid because the team was playing seven defensemen, which is not something the defensemen were used to.
“Guys were a little uncomfortable, to be honest with you,” Orpik said.
Carlson said he likes the more varied approach.
“I think it actually helps my game when you play with so many people because you don’t get so defined by certain tendencies and stuff, at least in my own game,” Carlson said. “Everyone kind of moves around and likes being in different places.”
The growing partnership of Carlson and Djoos isn’t just a new challenge for the rookie. In his eighth full NHL season, Carlson hasn’t had to be the veteran, stabilizing presence in a blue line duo before, as he has typically been paired with a more experienced player in the past. With three goals and 22 assists in 34 games, Carlson has had a productive start to the season, averaging a career-high 26:11 in ice time. In those minutes he is on the ice with a rookie in Djoos, he knows his role changes to one of mentorship, too.
“I think I’m at that point in my career where I need to not just step my game up on the ice but also make sure I’m trying to help these guys as best I can,” Carlson said.
Djoos had praise for his veteran teammate.
“He’s a great player,” Djoos said. “He can handle every situation, and that helps me, too.”
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