Barring an injury or a personal grudge against him, the Washington Capitals’ John Carlson has become an overwhelming favorite to win the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s top defenseman.
Entering Thursday’s games, Carlson led all NHL blue-liners in goals (11) and points (42) — 14 more points than the next-highest-scoring defenseman and sixth-most among all skaters — while averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time. Carlson is the first defenseman to reach the 40-point mark in 29 or fewer games since Al MacInnis in 1990-91. And after scoring twice Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings, Carlson tied MacInnis and Denis Potvin (1975-76) for the most points by a defenseman in the first 30 games of a season (42) since Bobby Orr amassed 56 at the start of the 1974-75 campaign. Potvin and Orr won the Norris trophy in those years.
“There’s a lot of great players I’m playing with that make me look pretty good right now,” Carlson said after the win in San Jose. “We got a real good start to the season.”
That start includes a 21-4-5 record with an NHL-high 47 points in 30 games, making Carlson the best player on the best team with a case for the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s MVP.
Forwards have dominated the award. Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price won it in 2015, and the last defenseman to win it was Chris Pronger in 2000. Before that, it was Orr in 1972. Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner and four-time Stanley Cup winner widely considered to be one of the best defensemen ever, never finished higher than fourth on MVP ballots.
Despite those odds, Carlson is making a strong case.
Let’s start with the last two defensemen to win the award, Pronger and Orr. Differences in season lengths, roster sizes and scoring environments make it difficult to compare season-long stats, but two advanced metrics, goals created and point shares, make era adjustments, allowing a more direct assessment of their respective performances. Goals created accounts for assists and adjusts them to the team level. Point shares is an adaptation of the win shares metric Bill James created in 2002 for baseball. In hockey, point shares estimate the number of standing points (two points for a win in regulation, overtime or a shootout and one point for an overtime or shootout loss) each player is responsible for. The higher the number, the more that player contributing to winning.
Orr created 42 goals with 20.1 point shares in 1971-72, Pronger created 22 goals with 14.8 point shares in 1999-2000, and Carlson has created 40 goals and a league-leading 7.4 point shares this season. Prorate both for Carlson over an 82-game campaign, and we could be witnessing one of the best campaigns ever by a defenseman.
|Player||Games played||Goals created||Point shares|
|Bobby Orr (1971-72)||76||42||20.1|
|Chris Pronger (1999-2000)||79||22||14.8|
|John Carlson (2019-20)||30||40||7.4|
Carlson’s value is so high because he is a factor in every part of the game. Only the Edmonton Oilers’ Oscar Klefbom had skated more total minutes this season than Carlson entering Thursday’s games, and Carlson can be found playing almost four minutes per night on the power play and nearly two minutes on the penalty kill.
The Capitals have outscored opponents 33-19 at even strength with Carlson on the ice, a better even-strength goal differential than 27 NHL teams this season. And these aren’t easy minutes he’s skating. Opposing forwards he’s faced the most this year include Johnny Gaudreau, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau.
“A lot of talk about his points and his goals, which is amazing right now, but also how good he is defensively,” teammate T.J. Oshie said. “He’s a solid rock back there, and he gets the job done every night.”
With the Capitals on the power play, Carlson has 10 assists, with seven of those credited as the primary setup pass. Only Edmonton forwards Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the 2016-17 Hart winner, have more among skaters with at least 100 power-play minutes this season. Playing on a power play with Alex Ovechkin certainly helps Carlson’s numbers, but just three of those seven primary assists led to an Ovechkin goal. The Capitals have scored 16 power-play goals this season with Carlson on the ice, and he has points on 12 of them. Just six other skaters have earned a point on a higher share of their team’s power-play tallies when they’re on the ice, and all are forwards.
Carlson also contributes to the Capitals’ above-average penalty kill (83.5 percent, 12th), reducing the rate of scoring chances against per 60 minutes of the ice time for a second year in a row.
“The guys, you know, like to give him a hard time about it, and lots of things have gone his way. That being said, he’s earned it, he’s worked for it, he deserves it,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s not just the offensive stuff. He’s blocking shots, playing rushes early. He’s doing it all, obviously.”
Samantha Pell contributed to this report.
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