The Capitals’ defensive spotlight this year has been all Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner, and rightfully so. Niskanen and Alzner average the most ice-time per game out of all of the Caps’ blue-liners, they combine for 13 points in 18 games, and it was revealed earlier this year that they’re buddies on and off the ice.
They’ve been utilized as a shutdown line against opponents like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, where they prevented any of the top forwards from registering a point. There’s been so much buzz generated by this top blue-line pair that it’s easy to overlook some of the other players on the team.
John Carlson had a career high 55 points in the 2014-15 regular season, and the beginning of the 2015-16 season was looking to be a continuation of his dominating style of defensive play. On the day after Christmas last season, Carlson sustained a broken ankle and missed 12 games before prematurely rejoining the lineup. Carlson’s play was shaky at best, and Coach Barry Trotz had told reporters that he wasn’t feeling 100%, so Carlson opted for surgery. He was able to rejoin the team for the ending of the season and for playoffs, where he looked like his old self again.
This season, however, John Carlson has remained relatively quiet. So far, he has racked up 45 shots without a single goal to show for it, and his ice-time has been around 23 minutes a game on average this season. So what is the deal? Why has Carlson been struggling to replicate his past successes in seasons prior? There are several factors that could be contributing to his lack of success this season:
Carlson Sustained a “Minor Injury” During the World Cup
John Carlson began the season slow with Washington, only recording one assist in the entire month of October, but began producing once the Western Canada road trip was underway. A couple of weeks ago, Trotz addressed the media and said that Carlson was “a little banged up” after the World Cup, just before the season began. That could explain the slow start to his season, and why his play seems so out-of-character this year.
Washington’s Defense is Playing More Stay-at-Home
While Assistant Coach Todd Reirden has utilized the Caps’ defensemen as a key tool in offensive production in the past, so far this season the Caps’ blue-line has had an uncharacteristically slow start as far as point production goes. Washington is near the bottom of the league when it comes to goals from defensemen. Capitals defensemen only account for three of the 48 goals scored by the team so far this year.
The stats may look pretty grim to some people, but there is another side to the defensive story here.
Currently, the Caps are third place in the league for fewest goals against per game, sitting at an average of 2.17 goals allowed. Only three other teams have fewer total goals allowed as well. The reason for these great defensive numbers is primarily a different style of play from the Caps’ blue line. Defensemen on the Washington squad haven’t been taking risky chances to hold the puck in the zone, instead opting to back out and drive the forwards to the outside to prevent them from making a play. Because of this, the Caps are able to prevent odd-man breaks the other way even if they aren’t holding the offensive zone as well.
Carlson is Still Getting Used to his New Linemate
Carlson has been paired with Dmitry Orlov this season, whereas in seasons prior he was with veteran blue-liner, Brooks Orpik. Orpik has always played a very physical, stay-at-home style of defense, which allowed Carlson to take more offensive opportunities, knowing that if he pinched and got caught, Orpik would still be on the blue line and another forward would cover his spot.
Orlov wasn’t always a defenseman in his hockey career. The 25-year-old Russian alternated between playing offense and defense, and you can still tell he has an offensive mindset in his play. In this pair, Carlson is the more defensive-minded defenseman, and therefore doesn’t have as many opportunities offensively as he did with his old linemate.
Point Scoring for Most Defensemen is Streaky
There are very few defensemen in the league who can say that they consistently rack up points for their teams. Sure there are guys in the league like Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber who consistently contribute to the offense, but most defensemen score their points in bursts.
Even during his 2014-15 career high season, Carlson would sometimes go seven or eight games without a single point, but would still have dazzling moments like late-November/early-December where he would get six points in three games. There hasn’t been a part of his career where he wasn’t streaky in point production, so having scoring droughts isn’t an anomaly for him. Carlson’s lack of goals scored isn’t from a lack of trying, since he has the second most shots on the team and is a regular on the powerplay. Sometimes players go through droughts and periods of bad luck.
It can be tough for fans to see, and it’s easy to get upset and call for change when a regular point producer isn’t performing how he normally does, but John Carlson is still one of the top defensemen on the Caps’ blue line. Now that he’s adjusting to Orlov’s style of play, and seems to be back to full health, the points should start building up for the Capitals’ defenseman.
By Justin Green