The Capitals’ front office and head coach Peter Laviolette (and his staff) rely on defenseman John Carlson heavily as a main contributor on the back-end. Carlson has been a mainstay for the Capitals since 2010-11, his first full season in the NHL.
After the Stanley Cup run in 2018, Carlson was set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent, but was subsequently inked to an eight year, 64 million dollar deal that cemented the odds that Carlson would likely finish his career in DC.
Carlson has produced at high levels offensively since signing the big ticket contract to stay in DC. Carlson has put up 199 points in 216 games since the start of the 2018-19 season, which is the most in the NHL during that timeframe. Nashville’s Roman Josi, who notably won the Norris Trophy over Carlson in the 2019-20 season, is second with 170 points.
This is all to be said that the issue with Carlson hasn’t been his offensive capabilities; there’s arguably no better offensive defensemen in the league in terms of production over the past four seasons. However, Carlson has struggled defensively and his value defensively has dropped considerably since his first few seasons in the league, when he was lauded as a true two way defenseman:
The graph above shows John Carlson’s defensive goals above replacement (GAR) over his career. The trend showed considerable value defensively for Carlson, early, but fizzled rather quickly in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Carlson’s defensive value never recovered after that point, likely due to a role change after offensive defenseman Mike Green left the team after the 2014-15 season.
Recently, there’s been a large swing in Carlson’s effectiveness throughout the season. One of the contributing factors seems to be his overall usage, or time on ice:
(If you’d like to learn more about the advanced analytical terms used in this post, please check out our glossary.)
Carlson’s game score trends negatively as his time on ice during 5-on-5 increases. He’s averaging 15:51 in time on ice during 5-on-5 play so far this season. He tends to perform better in games where his 5-on-5 ice time is around 14:00, which typically means that the Capitals either had committed several penalties, or drawn several penalties, or sometimes both.
For comparison’s sake, here’s Nick Jensen’s Game Score relative to five on five time on ice:
Jensen has a slight negative trend in game score as his 5-on-5 ice time increases, but it is much less of a drop off than Carlson’s. The difference for Jensen is that he doesn’t play on the power play. Carlson takes the lion’s share of time on ice on the power play, with 4:11 of PP/TOI per game played.
Carlson, who will turn 32 in January, averages 23:17 in time on ice. He battled through a knee injury last year, and has looked outmatched defensively at times in games so far this season. It may be time to reduce Carlson’s time on ice during 5-on-5, and take him off of the penalty kill.
If Carlson can get more strategic deployments in the offensive zone with fresher legs, we may see even more offensive output. Carlson certainly should relinquish duties on the penalty kill to players like Dmitry Orlov, Martin Fehervary, or Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Overall, with the solid performances this season from the Orlov – Jensen and TvR – Schultz pairings, Carlson and Fehervary should be getting more sheltered deployments and let the other two pairings be the workhorses.
By Justin Trudel