Of all the highs for John Carlson last season — his first Stanley Cup, a career year with 15 goals and 53 assists, and a big new contract worth $64 million over eight years — he and Washington Capitals Coach Todd Reirden fell short on one goal they set for him four years ago.
“Definitely getting that top-three [finish] for the Norris [Trophy] is something that he and I have had some different plans over the years in terms of the expectations for him,” Reirden said. Carlson finished fifth in voting for the award, which recognizes the NHL’s best defenseman. Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman won it, finishing ahead of Drew Doughty of Los Angeles, P.K. Subban of Nashville and Seth Jones of Columbus.
“Whether it happens or not is not really on me,” Carlson said. “I know I can play better and be better, but I’m not going to be running any campaigns.”
Then allow his teammates to lobby on his behalf.
“Last year, he got robbed for the Norris, I think,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “If you look around the league and look at all the defensemen, I mean, John Carlson is the guy that I would pick first. The work he does on a nightly basis, no one else does.”
After Carlson led all defensemen in scoring last season with 68 points and then was rewarded with a rich contract — his $8 million salary cap hit is tied for second among NHL blue-liners — the expectations for him are even higher. He has handled them well so far, posting three goals and six assists in Washington’s first six games. Five of those assists have come on the Capitals’ hot power play, which is scoring at a 39.1 percent clip, the second-best mark in the NHL. Playing on both special teams units, he’s averaging 26 minutes, which has him on pace for a career high in time on ice. (He averaged 24:47 last season.) At five-on-five, Washington has scored eight goals when Carlson has been on the ice while surrendering three.
The Capitals' blue line was suspect for much of last season, and the team challenged Carlson with the heaviest workload of his career while often rotating defense partners. He’s expected to enjoy more stability this season with Michal Kempny back on his left side. Kempny’s smooth skating, in particular his speed getting back for loose pucks or chances against, should allow Carlson to be more aggressive offensively.
In Wednesday night’s overtime win against the New York Rangers, he finished with three points, scoring Washington’s lone even-strength goal with a slap shot off a faceoff. On the team’s first two power plays, he teed up Alex Ovechkin one-timers from the left faceoff circle. The highlights focused on Ovechkin’s goals and defenseman Matt Niskanen’s game-winner, but within the dressing room, Carlson’s impressive performance didn’t go unnoticed.
“He flies under the radar a little bit just with our overall team success sometimes,” Reirden said. “In the past when we’ve worked together [as Carlson’s position coach], we’ve used that as incentive and a chance to motivate and continue to push forward to get to where his ultimate goal is: to be at the top."
“He dominates the game,” Niskanen said. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch — big shot. He’s a good player. We need him.”
Carlson has never been named to the All-Star Game, and Reirden said he was disappointed when Carlson was passed over last season. Although Carlson is animated in practice, his attitude off the ice is generally laid back. He downplayed pressure to live up to his new contract.
“If I score 150 goals this season, you can’t redo it," he said. “Realistically, you’ve already earned what you’ve gotten. Then it comes down to just pride in yourself to want to be the best version of me.”
When asked whether he expected a higher Norris finish this season, he shrugged that off, too.
“I don’t know. At the end of the day, I got what I wanted,” he said, referring to the Stanley Cup. “That’s all that matters. . . . Things have been going pretty well so far, but it’s not about that for me. I just want to play good hockey and put people in positions to succeed. I feel confident in my game, I know what I’m capable of, and I want to be the best that I can be.”