MONTREAL — Even if John Carlson wanted to ignore his stat line and how it ranks in the league, his Capitals teammates wouldn’t let him. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Chiasson regularly remind him that his name is still atop the points leader board for defensemen, and Carlson still isn’t quite sure what to make of it all.
“Obviously, I know,” Carlson said. “It’s not like I won’t look because I’m superstitious or anything like that. The guys are constantly joking about it, too. So, I know everything, but I don’t actively look at it to prove a point or search for some goal.”
Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin has no shame in admitting he monitors where he stands in the goal-scoring race. “I don’t believe when someone says, ‘I don’t care about the stats,’ and all of this kind of stuff. Of course they want points, they wants goals,” he said earlier this month.
And just as Carlson’s name is at the very top of the list for points among defensemen, Ovechkin leads the league in goals with 44. Their impressive individual seasons have the Capitals again poised to win the Metropolitan Division, even after salary cap constraints weakened the roster in the summer.
But while both players are at the top of their respective fields for a division-leading, playoff-bound team, both are afterthoughts in NHL awards conversations. When the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association conducted a midseason vote before the All-Star Game, Carlson received just one first-place vote for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league’s best all-around blue-liner, and he finished in sixth place overall. In voting for the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, Ovechkin garnered two first-place votes, placing seventh place. Though some of the candidates for both awards have changed as the season has progressed, both Carlson and Ovechkin flaunted impressive numbers relative to their competition both at midseason and now.
Washington entered this campaign without three of its defensemen from last season, so more responsibility fell on Carlson. When fellow right-shot blue-liner Matt Niskanen got hurt in just the fifth game, Carlson averaged nearly 28 minutes per game for the next month. He started the season playing mostly with veteran Brooks Orpik, but then Carlson was asked to also play beside Christian Djoos and help with the rookie’s development. Now, Carlson’s partner is Michal Kempny, a trade-deadline addition who’s also leaning on Carlson as he adjusts to a new team.
“I remember all of the coaches early in the year saying they were going to test [Carlson] and see what he’s made of,” Niskanen said. “I think he’s answered that pretty well. They’ve asked a lot of him. A lot. And he’s produced and played steady and played well. He’s been a stud.”
Carlson has played a career-high 24:58 a night while scoring 15 goals and 46 assists for 61 points, also career highs. Eleven of his 15 goals have been at even strength, though Carlson has tallied 24 assists on the power play with the responsibility of setting up Ovechkin’s shot from the left faceoff circle. Though he and Stars defenseman John Klingberg are the only blueliners with more than 60 points so far, the most-talked about candidates for the Norris are Nashville’s P.K. Subban, Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and Los Angeles’s Drew Doughty. Hedman and Doughty finished first and second, respectively, in midseason PHWA voting. Those players benefit from good reputations for being defensively sound, while a minus-five rating on the season could hurt Carlson’s candidacy. Just 11 voters had Carlson in the top three of their Norris ballot at midseason.
“There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years of guys who have been known for their offense winning the Norris — [Ottawa’s Erik] Karlsson and people like [San Jose’s Brent] Burns get a lot of votes,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “There’s no reason that Johnny shouldn’t be getting some votes from people because he’s put up the numbers and he’s played huge minutes and he’s had tough matchups all year. He’s not perfect, and neither are those guys. I think he should get a lot of notice. It’s tough scoring in this league at the best of times, and when you’re doing it from the back end, that’s even more impressive.”
Ovechkin arguably has a more compelling case for the Hart Trophy. At age 32, he’s scored 44 goals and 37 assists this season, on pace to finish with his best point total since the 2009-10 season, when he was 24. There’s some debate over whether the Hart should reward the league’s most outstanding player or the player most valuable to his team, and perhaps no player has been more paramount to his team’s success than Ovechkin to Washington this season. After the team parted with two top-six forwards, Ovechkin has accounted for 19.4 percent of the Capitals’ goal total this season. No other NHL player has a larger share.
“I think he can fly under the radar a little bit when he’s doing it every year,” forward Tom Wilson said.
Because Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon is third in scoring with 92 points on an Avalanche team that could make the playoffs after finishing in last place a year ago — making him one of the NHL’s most outstanding and most valuable players this year — he’s the favorite to win the Hart. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 95 points on the first-place Lightning, and some are making a case for Edmonton’s Connor McDavid to repeat as the Hart winner, though the Oilers have been one of the league’s worst teams this season. McDavid has 36 goals and 58 assists for 94 points.
Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin has surged into the conversation with a prolific second half of the season — 27 goals and 28 assists in 34 games since Jan. 1 — and he’s fourth in scoring behind MacKinnon. But then there are players like New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Boston’s Brad Marchand and Minnesota’s Eric Staal who are getting more love for the Hart, though they currently have fewer points than Ovechkin.
“If you think about our team, we’re sitting in first place right now — not by a lot, but we are,” Trotz said. “I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be there. Some key people have gone almost 20 games without scoring goals, guys that we rely on offensively — some younger guys, some older guys. And he’s been the constant. He’s been the constant for us in terms of scoring, he’s leading the league in goals, and he’s been our most dominant player all year. So when you think about who’s the most valuable player, think about our team without Ovi this year. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be in first place.”
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