It’s been nearly five years since Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson was asked to dream big and list his goals. Then an assistant coach working with blue-liners in his first year with the team, Todd Reirden met with Carlson in those first days of their new relationship to map out the direction of Carlson’s promising career, a hopeful step-by-step progression. Most important to Carlson was winning a Stanley Cup, but individual accomplishments were discussed, too, from increasing his role on the ice to making an All-Star Game.
Since then, how much of the list has Carlson managed to figuratively check off?
“Quite a bit,” Carlson said. “But that’s the thing: never being satisfied with where you are as a team or as an individual. I know I can be a lot better.”
On pace for another career offensive year with eight goals and 39 assists through 49 games, Carlson is at his first All-Star Game this weekend in San Jose, all part of the grand plan set in motion five years ago. It’s the latest bit of recognition for a defenseman who’s become increasingly regarded as one of the NHL’s best, coming off a season in which he led all blue-liners in scoring with 68 points.
Washington rewarded him with an eight-year, $64 million extension this past summer, and Carlson has already proved that last year was no fluke. Averaging nearly a point per game while skating a career-high 25:20, Carlson is fourth in scoring among defensemen, behind San Jose’s Brent Burns, Calgary’s Mark Giordano and Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, three of the four players who finished ahead of him in the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association midseason vote for the Norris Trophy. The award goes to the best all-around defenseman, and cracking the top three was one of the goals from five years ago. The Capitals certainly felt like he deserved to be there last season, when he finished fifth.
“He’s picked up where he left off last year, and he’s probably even a little better than he was,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
“Everyone else is realizing how good he is and his consistent level of play,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “The last few years, he’s put himself into that star defenseman category. On a team like this where you can easily get overshadowed by the forwards we have, that shows you even more how good he is. He’s becoming a star on his own.”
Because Carlson doesn’t exclusively play against top forwards — he splits the load with Washington’s defense pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen — he gets a lot more credit for his offensive ability, particularly in manning the top power-play unit, and the defensive side of his game occasionally gets shortchanged when it comes to postseason awards consideration. But as the Capitals are on a seven-game losing streak, Carlson, along with captain Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, has been one of the team’s steadiest players. Of players on the team who have skated at least 300 minutes, he’s one of just three who have been on the ice for more shot attempts for the Capitals than against them.
But it’s Carlson’s play away from the puck that has impressed some of his idols. Growing up in New Jersey, Carlson admired Scott Stevens, a Hall of Fame defenseman who was drafted in the first round by Washington but played his final 13 seasons for the Devils. In a league much more inclined toward physicality at the time, Stevens was a bruising force in a way that Carlson isn’t and arguably can’t be in today’s game. But watching Carlson recently, Stevens appreciated Carlson’s play near the crease area in front of Holtby, how solid his positioning was when boxing out opposing forwards. Stevens compared Carlson to Los Angeles’s Drew Doughty, the 2016 Norris Trophy winner.
“He was a very offensive defenseman when he was drafted, but I think he’s really developed into a great all-around defenseman,” Stevens said. “I think it’s great that he understands the defensive part and can be used in any situation, that he can be used as a shutdown guy. …
“Most defensemen have some deficiencies, so it’s very hard to find those type of defensemen, and John is one of those guys.”
The legendary Bobby Orr, one of the greatest players of all time, has monitored Carlson’s career track from when he was a teenager in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program to when he starred for the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. Carlson is represented by Orr’s agency, the Orr Hockey Group, and while Orr gushed about what kind of father Carlson is to his two sons and his charitable work in the community, his main comment about Carlson on the ice is “every night, you’re going to get the same thing.” That was another of the goals on Carlson’s list.
“You’re going to get tested and things aren’t going to go your way all of the time, and it’s how you stand up to those situations,” Carlson said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve harped on with myself is just the consistency and making sure I’m not living up to my expectations one game and then taking a couple games off. I think that’s how you measure yourself, how high you can keep your level of play and for how long.”
Orr laughed that Carlson is “the quietest superstar” he knows. He’s known for being laid-back, and while that can be misunderstood as him appearing lax on the ice, it usually works in his favor, being calm in any situation. It’s also not to be confused with a lack of competitive fire. He’s shown a penchant for being at his best on the biggest stages, from scoring a gold medal-clinching overtime goal for Team USA in the 2010 world juniors to racking up 20 points in 24 playoff games during Washington’s Stanley Cup run last season.
And while a big, new contract that made him the NHL’s second-highest-paid defenseman by cap hit could add a lot of pressure for most players, Carlson largely shrugs that off. When the Capitals made that commitment, they were confident he’d be well worth the money, hopeful that he could continue to be the elite, workhorse defenseman he was last season. That he’s been even better is a bonus.
“At this point, I think I’m in a good space, and I think that allows you to be free and live up to your capabilities a little more than if you don’t have that,” Carlson said.
“Not much bothers him,” Orr said. “We sit back and wonder about Norris Trophy consideration, and John just goes about his business.”