John Carlson’s Performance in 2021: Elite Offensive Production, Question Mark Defensively

Photo: NHL via Getty Images

Now a seasoned veteran and established member of the Capitals’ core group of players, John Carlson is a known commodity. When it comes to offensive production, Carlson is in the elite echelon of performers, but it’s becoming more apparent that Carlson isn’t quite as polished, defensively. The 2020-21 season further reinforced that belief.

While Carlson isn’t quite as bad defensively as some may view him, he’s not exactly the defenseman you’d want in a shutdown pairing. That’s fine–Carlson’s value, and what ultimately got him his eight year, $64 million contract the summer after the Capitals finally brought Lord Stanley back to DC–was his offensive production. Let’s take a look at Carlson’s season broken down statistically.

Statistics used in this post are thanks to NaturalStatTrick, MoneyPuck, Evolving-Hockey, JFreshHockey, and Hockey-Reference.

Game Score

If you missed the posts on Justin Schultz’s or Dmitry Orlov’s, game score is a metric that Dom Luszczyszyn (now with The Athletic) created to measure the performance of a player in any given game. Here are the stats that Luszczyszyn uses in calculating game score:

  • Goals
  • Primary Assists
  • Secondary Assists
  • Shots on Goal
  • Blocked Shots
  • Penalty Differential
  • Faceoffs
  • 5-on-5 Corsi Differential
  • 5-on-5 Goal Differential  (you can read more about the Game Score metric’s method here).

Here’s Carlson’s 5-on-5 game scores broken down by game over the course of the 2020-21 regular season (click to enlarge):

The dotted line in the graphic above denotes the trend for Carlson’s game scores followed over the course of the season. It’s pretty clear that Carlson had some early season struggles, but started elevating his game, with a peak in mid-April.

Carlson’s top game score of 3.525 came against the Philadelphia Flyers on April 17th, where he notched four assists, two during 5-on-5 play and two during the power play. This is the value of Carlson’s game–he can explode on almost any given night to give the Caps a huge boost.

In fact, when Carlson’s game score was 1.0 or higher, the Capitals went 16-5-1. When Carlson’s game score was .45 or lower, the Caps went 9-8-2. Here’s Carlson’s total game scores by opponent:

Carlson really made the Flyers pay – especially considering his best performance of the season came against them. It’s also certainly not surprising that the team Carlson struggled with the most was the Bruins, considering what we saw during the playoffs (although he was playing through an injury).

Possession

Here’s Carlson’s Corsi For percentage by game throughout the season (click to enlarge):

Carlson posted a very solid 53.2 CF% over the course of the season. Outside of early struggles in this area (which mirrors the game score graphic earlier in this piece), Carlson was consistently solid in this area.

It appears that Carlson’s gains in CF% might be due to Laviolette switching Carlson’s partner from Brenden Dillon to Dmitry Orlov. For context, in 498 minutes of time on ice with Dillon, that pairing’s CF% was 49.44%. In 274:07 of time on ice with Orlov, the pairing’s CF% rose considerably, to 54.51%. With that rise in CF% after Carlson and Orlov were put together, Carlson’s expected goals for percentage rose, which we’ll get into now:

While paired with Dillon earlier in the season, the pairing accounted for a 49.34 xGF% (and a 51.06 actual goals for percentage). After moving to a pairing with Orlov, Carlson’s pairing saw the xGF% rise to 53.85% and an actual GF% of 53.85%. If there’s a contender for the top pairing on opening night later this fall, it’s going to likely be Orlov and Carlson.

Rate Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM)

Here’s how Carlson’s RAPM breaks down, courtesy of JFreshHockey:

Carlson’s RAPM confirms the eye-test and the statistical analysis presented earlier in this post. Carlson is absolutely elite, offensively, and doesn’t look like that’ll change any time soon. It’s not a surprise that Carlson’s defensive abilities are average, as the expected goals against percentile shows above.

Here’s another view of Carlson’s RAPM, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey:

Another confirmation — Carlson is solid in regards to goals for per sixty minutes, expected goals for per sixty minutes, and Corsi For per sixty minutes. On top of that, he’s extremely solid on the power play, which isn’t much of a surprise.

Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR)

Here’s another view of Carlson’s season, broken down by GAR and xGAR by situation on ice, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey:

Posting a performance in the 86th percentile, overall, is extremely solid. Carlson is in the upper tier of defensemen in the league, but that’s mainly buoyed by the fact that he’s in the 96th percentile offensively. The issue that grates at the nerves of Caps fans is pretty indicative of his defensive percentile, coming in low at the 18th percentile.

Summary

Carlson is still a highly performing member of the Capitals’ core group of players, and is among the elite tier of defensemen in the NHL. With that, there’s just some acceptance the Caps have to make with Carlson’s defensive play.

He’s never going to be a shutdown defenseman at this point in his career. He’s entering his 13th season in the NHL and Carlson is who he is at this point: an elite offensive defenseman that will occasionally have defensive breakdowns on the ice. Overall, Carlson is a vital piece of this Capitals team going forward into the twilight of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup contention window.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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