Carlson’s strong defense created offense. As his point total continues to soar — 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) after Friday night’s win — his teammates and coaches find themselves reminding reporters of Carlson’s defensive strengths. They don’t want Carlson to be typecast as an “offensive” defenseman.
“He’s not all offense; he’s not carrying the puck the entire game like some of the other guys in the league that I would call offensive,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “He’s a guy that understands his role, his importance and his strengths in supporting the rush from behind, defending with his stick and with his body, and he is able to play a two-way game.”
The label “offensive defenseman” has been thrown around for years in hockey, but in this era, what is its true definition? Do players get miffed when they are categorized as offensive? The answers vary.
Drew Doughty, the 2015-16 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman, sees offensive defensemen as being defined in two ways. First, there are players who can skate, rush the puck often and make plays. Then there are those who are more pass-first but are shooters on the power play. He categorizes himself as a passer who is going to join the rush and make plays, and he believes he is “one of the most well-rounded defensemen in the league.”
Call Doughty an offensive defenseman, and he will start listing his defensive attributes: his ability to play against the other team’s best players and his status as the first player on the penalty kill and the first on the ice in the last minute of games. It’s a similar reaction from Carlson, who will point to the changing game.
“Everyone has got to be able to move the puck — maybe not the second defenseman jumping into the rush, but in the offensive zone if someone is coming up the wall, a defenseman isn’t just going to stand there,” Carlson said. “You are (a) making it harder for the guy with the puck and (b), you know, making it easier for them to play two guys on the one guy coming up the wall.”
Doughty thinks what qualifies as offensive needs to be revisited.
“You never see a guy like [Nashville’s] Roman Josi mentioned enough, how well he controls the game,” Doughty said. “Those are the guys that I really respect: guys who control the game and that move the puck well, get up in the rush, stuff like that.”
Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner who four times has finished among the top 10 in Hart Trophy voting for the league MVP, said there has been an evolution.
The mold of offensive defensemen started in the late 1960s with how Bobby Orr played the game, opening up the creativity and the freedom to jump into plays. It continued with players such as Paul Coffey and Nicklas Lidstrom.
“Teams were searching for quarterback, offensive-type defensemen that just add a lot to your team,” said Doug Wilson, a former defenseman who played 16 NHL seasons and is now the general manager of the Sharks. “They are very hard to find.”
When he entered the league in 2009, Karlsson said, defensemen “didn’t need to skate as well.” Instead, they needed to handle the puck more.
Now “you just have to be able to skate and move it fast to someone who is fast,” he said. “I don’t think it is as much puck control.”
He knows he has been categorized as a typical offensive defenseman but says there is more to his game.
“It doesn’t really matter what else you do out there because that is what you are going to be known for and that is the position I’m in,” Karlsson said. “And that’s just the way it is.”
San Jose’s Brent Burns, known as a dynamic offensive player who has played forward at times, doesn’t mind the label.
“Yeah, why not?” Burns said, giving half of a shrug and walking out of the Sharks’ dressing room before coming back a few minutes later to explain his thoughts. “I think whatever their group is, I think it puts their forwards in a better position. You know, whether you have a lot of shooters up there, you are a good passer. Usually a good skater is able to get it out of their zone. You know, depending on the offense, you could be depended on to shoot, so I think there are guys that are really good at that across the league, and I think an offensive guy is just a guy that helps create offense in whatever way they do it.”
Vegas’s Nate Schmidt sees defense as being in the “transporting turnover business.” An offensive defenseman’s job is to transport the puck up the ice as fast as he can, giving his team more time and space to create. Forcing the opponent to turn over the puck is a way of being offensive. It’s “such an underlying part” of what it means to be an offensive threat, Schmidt said.
“I like to think how the definition of a pure guy — can’t play defense, only good on the power play — that role has kind of phased its way out of the NHL a little bit,” he said.
The teams that are good, Schmidt said, have defensemen who have the puck on their sticks a lot.
“I like a guy that can do a little bit of everything,” Schmidt said. “For me, [Carlson] is on pace to do it. Guys that can play against top lines and score points, that’s the coup de grâce for me as a defenseman.”