From Understudy to Lead Role: A Look At John Carlson’s Evolution Into a Norris Trophy Front-runner

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Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Capitals defenseman John Carlson is having himself a banner season, one that has garnered the attention of many outside Washington, and rightfully so. As the most productive defenseman in the league this season, and one of the top producing players league-wide, Washington’s top rearguard has placed himself squarely in a lead role on the stage that is a star-studded Caps team. However, the former first-round pick was not always in the spotlight in Washington and on the national stage. In this piece, NoVa Caps takes a look back on Carlson’s evolution from understudy to marquee performer.

Early Audition and Understudy to Mike Green

The Caps drafted Carlson with the 27th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, with many scouts complimenting the rearguard’s size, skating, and offensive abilities as his biggest strengths. Carlson spent his first post-draft season with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, recording 76 points (16 goals, 60 assists) in 59 games played and a plus-23 rating. John+Carlson+NHL+Entry+Draft+Portraits+8x-sIugA-HYl

Andre  Ringuette/Getty Images North America

Carlson spent most of the 2009-10 season with the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears, playing in 48 games and recording 39 points, while also participating in the World Junior Championships that season, scoring the Gold Medal and game-winning goal in overtime against Canada and securing a place in United States Hockey history. Carlson made his NHL debut on November 21, 2009 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Caps recalled Carlson on January 21, 2010 and he spent a total of 22 games in D.C., scoring once and adding five assists for six points. At the time of Carlson’s arrival in Washington, Mike Green was the team’s top blueliner and a past Norris Trophy runner-up. While Carlson would spend the entire 2010-11 season with the Capitals, he was still just 20-years old at the start of the season and still developing his game. And while his offensive abilities were beginning to take shape, he was relegated to a role behind Green as the team’s top and marquee blueliner (in addition to other veteran defensemen).

However, a run of recurring injuries to Green began to pave the way for Carlson to receive more ice time and a chance to refine his offensive and overall game. With Green reduced to just 49 games played in 2010-11, Carlson’s average ice time jumped to 22:39 in his first full season in the league and saw him put up seven goals and 37 points in 82 games played, with his average time on ice ranking second among skaters with 40 or more games played, behind only Green, and his 158 blocked shots led the team for the season. Carlson’s Corsi For % of 53.0 placed him second behind Green’s 53.3 (among the team’s defensemen who played 20 games or more on the season; trade acquisition Dennis Wideman led all defensemen on the season with a Corsi For % of 54.4 in just 14 games played) and his 60 takeaways led all blueliners on the team.

As Green struggled with injuries, Carlson’s overall game began to flourish in an enlarged role and over the next three seasons (including the 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) recorded 91 points (25 goals, 66 assists) in 212 games played, while averaging 23:09 of ice time a night. Despite a 2013-14 season in which the team struggled and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, Carlson still managed to match his then-career high of 37 points, while leading all blueliners with an average ice time of 24:31, 1:14 more than Green’s 22:44 in 12 less games played. The highlight of Carlson’s season was a selection to the United States’ Olympic team in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, where he recorded one goal and one assist in six games with the Americans.

Skating Into the Spotlight With “Director” Reirden

The 2014-15 season brought numerous changes to the Capitals organization and roster, with a new General Manager (Brian MacLellan), Head Coach (Barry Trotz), Coaching Staff, and free agent defensemen (Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen) brought in to bolster the Caps and turn the team’s misfortunes the previous season around. The addition of Niskanen pushed Green, the Capitals’ longtime number one blueliner down the depth chart and placed Carlson firmly in the No. 1 role, a position he had likely assumed for certain over the previos seasons. However, it was the addition of then-Assistant Coach Todd Reirden, a former NHL defenseman and a coach renowned for his work with blueliners, that pushed Carlson’s game to the next level.

Working alongside Reirden and allowed to retain a major role (his average ice time of 23:04 again led all skaters and defensemen), Carlson’s overall game blossomed, finishing the regular season with a then-career high 12 goals, 43 assists, and 55 points in 82 games played, a career-high 200 blocked shots, and a then-career high 0.67 points per game. Carlson’s 12 goals, 43 assists, and 55 points ranked him 13th, sixth, and fifth, respectively, among all blueliners league-wide. Carlson’s stellar season, one in which he played the majority of his time with Orpik (a total of 1434:40 minutes), earned him a 10th-place finish in Norris Trophy voting as the league’s Best Defenseman, the first time the 2008 first-round pick finished within the Top 10 and in consideration in voting for the award. Over the next two seasons (which were shortened due to injury), Carlson (now entrenched as the team’s undisputed number one rearguard) recorded 76 points (17 goals, 59 assists) in 128 games played, while still averaging over 20 minutes – 23:09 – a night).

Stanley Cup Championship and Undisputed Star

The 2017-18 season would be a turning point for both Carlson and the Capitals, as the team finished at the top of the Metropolitan Division once again and rode a desire to win and resilient style of play to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. Carlson finished the regular season with what was at the time a career-high 68 points (15 goals, 53 assists), an even plus/minus rating, and a then-career high 24:47 average time on ice in 82 games played. He led all blueliners in points, and finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting. In 24 playoff games played en route to the Stanley Cup, Carlson recorded 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) to lead all blueliners in playoff scoring. Carlson would top his 68 points just one season later (the first with Reirden as Head Coach) when he once again set a new career-high in points with 70 (13 goals, 57 assists) and averaged a career-best 25:04 of ice time a night. Carlson finished fourth in Norris voting, his third Top 10 finish in voting. Carlson also made his first All-Star Game appearance, winning the Hardest Shot Competition in San Jose.

Making History and Norris Trophy Front-runner

This season, Carlson has emerged as the unquestionable, early-season favorite for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best blueliner, and has done so by riding an incredible start to the 2019-20 season. In just 33 games played, Carlson has scored 12 goals, and recorded 45 points, with plus-19 rating while averaging 24:56 of ice time a night for Reirden. Carlson recorded 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 14 games in the month of October, placing him as the second-highest scoring blueliner all-time in October behind only Al MacInnis. Carlson has also moved up the franchise record books and now ranks fifth, second, and second, in franchise Goals, Assists, and Points for blueliners, and will likely move into sole possession of the latter two categories by season’s end. Carlson’s 1.36 points per game in 2019-20 leads all rearguards and is on pace for over 100 points.

Carlson’s status as the league’s best blueliner and the Caps’ top rearguard only seemed natural. His draft pedigree aside, the arch that his play has developed into has seen him go from freshman understudy to Green in Washington, to arguably the league’s top defenseman and early-season, Norris Trophy favorite. Since the 2010-11 season, Carlson ranks seventh in goals (101), fifth in assists (341), and fourth in points (442) among all defensemen. And with the 27th overall pick in 2008 locked in for six more seasons and just 30-years old (31 on January 10), the Caps should expect him to be playing the lead role for a number of years to come.

By Michael Fleetwood

About Michael Fleetwood

Michael Fleetwood was born into a family of diehard Capitals fans and has been watching games as long as he can remember. He was born the year the Capitals went to their first Stanley Cup Final, and is a diehard Caps fan, the owner of the very FIRST Joe Beninati jersey and since then, has met Joe himself. His favorite player became former Capital Nate Schmidt after he met Schmidt in a Hershey hotel while in Hershey PA to see the Bears play, shortly after Schmidt was injured during a conditioning stint. Michael is also a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Orioles, and enjoys photography, watching WildEarth TV's SafariLive live safaris, and watching animals in his spare time. (Photo by Adam Vingan in 2014 at the Capitals Development Camp).
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6 Responses to From Understudy to Lead Role: A Look At John Carlson’s Evolution Into a Norris Trophy Front-runner

  1. Day One Caps Fan says:

    And John Carlson has been supremely durable
    My biggest knock against Mike Green was that he was perpetually injured

    Caps current D-six are pretty good
    Kempny’s dedication to rehab and conditioning was exceptional and it’s GREAT to have him back
    Gudas has been splendid and his +12 shows it

    Caps main-six on defense are excellent and should not be broken up
    And i’ll be apologist for #3 Jensen, he’s been solid for many months
    But Fans and Caps’ brass will go, “Minus-nine! Minus-nine! No Goals!” and beat him up

    John Carlson is Norris unless skulduggery robs him of his rightful trophy
    I even see him as an MVP candidate

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