It’s an elephant in the room of Washington’s season: What will the team do about Carlson? Before the season started, Carlson and his agent, Rick Curran of The Orr Hockey Group, discussed Carlson’s murky future. “Just play hockey,” Curran told him. That much Carlson has done well, second among NHL defensemen in points with 31 (four goals and 27 assists) while averaging a career-high 26:20 on ice per game.
But while Carlson has had the best first half of a season in his career, any contract talks between the Capitals and his camp have stayed quiet. Curran said the sides haven’t had any discussions yet, something he said he expects to change in the coming weeks now that it’s later in the season and the trade deadline is approaching at the end of February.
Curran said he and, more importantly, Carlson understand that the team’s salary-cap constraints are why Washington has yet to express interest in an extension. After the Capitals awarded lengthy and costly contracts to T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov this summer, roughly 60 percent of the team’s current $75 million salary cap is tied up in seven players through the 2019-20 season, according to CapFriendly.com. Carlson’s cap hit is just south of $4 million; if he were to hit the open market July 1, he’d be the best defenseman available and due for a significant pay raise.
But for the Capitals to keep Carlson, which seems increasingly likely with how well he has played, Washington would likely have to give the soon-to-be 28-year-old the maximum eight-year term, committing even more of the salary cap to a small core of players. Even if the salary cap increases next year, to accommodate Carlson the Capitals might have to shed salary for a second year in a row and part with other pending free agents they’d otherwise prefer to keep. But with no defenseman in the organization ready to ascend to Carlson’s role and external free agent options not particularly attractive to replace the all-situations blue-liner, they might not have a choice.
“I know what his hopes and his desires are,” Curran said.
“It’s not something I’ve been thinking about,” Carlson said last month. “From my standpoint, that’s not going to change. I’m just focusing on playing hockey and let the other stuff take care of itself. There’ll be a time for all that, and that’s when I’ll deal with that. … That’s what your agent does: find what the value should be and all that. I haven’t looked into any of that stuff.”
At the midpoint of the season, Carlson is on pace to finish with 62 points, which would have placed him fourth among defensemen in scoring last season, behind San Jose’s Brent Burns (76 points), Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (72) and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman (71). Burns signed an eight-year, $64 million contract extension with the Sharks well before he could reach free agency, a figure similar to the eight-year, $63 million deal Hedman signed with the Lightning a year before he could hit the open market.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Washington’s trade-deadline acquisition last year, tallied 13 goals and 43 assists last season and was the top blue-liner in this most recent free agent class. Shattenkirk landed a $6.65 million annual cap hit on the open market. But to play for his hometown New York Rangers, Shattenkirk sacrificed on term, signing a four-year deal when he likely could’ve gotten seven years elsewhere.
“I think every player will tell you that’s what they’re looking for: to get their worth,” Shattenkirk said last month. “You look at comparables and all that kind of stuff and you have a notion in your mind of where you’re going to sign and what the number’s going to be. … But I also think that there’s a lot of pride in suiting up with a team and giving them a chance to win and being somewhere that you feel comfortable, and sometimes you can’t put a dollar sign on that.”
When Carlson had 12 goals and 43 assists during the 2014-15 season, he finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting as one of the league’s best defensemen. Oft-injured the past two years, his production slipped, but he could get the first all-star nod of his career thanks to his well-timed resurgence this season.
“Carly’s had to play a lot of minutes, a lot of important minutes,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think he’s either two or three in the league in scoring all of the time here. He should get some recognition, absolutely. … I think it’s long overdue.”
Trotz said that Tuesday morning, roughly seven hours before Washington’s game at Carolina, when an errant pass by Carlson in front of the Capitals’ net resulted in the first Hurricanes goal. But by the time the game was over, Carlson had skated a season-high 30:51 in the 5-4 overtime win, and Trotz said he thought Carlson played “outstanding.” As fellow right-shooting defenseman Matt Niskanen has been injured and missed 14 games this season, Carlson has showcased his value to the team, quarterbacking the top power play while often facing top competition at even strength and also logging the most shorthanded time on ice per game.
Washington lost mobile defenseman Nate Schmidt in the Vegas expansion draft this summer, and the organization then parted with veteran free agents Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk, so the Capitals are already breaking in two rookies on the blue line this season. The organization has a strong prospect pool of defensemen, but none is ready to play on a top pairing in the NHL. Acquiring someone who is more suited to that role through trade or free agency could be just as costly as re-signing Carlson.
“There’s some guys who I think [an expiring contract] kind of pushes them to have a really good season, and there’s other guys that they put too much pressure on themselves and it works against them,” Orpik said. “Johnny’s a pretty laid-back guy. If you just watch the way he handles himself, there’s not too many things that worry him. I think because of that kind of personality, it probably works to his advantage.”