In the final review for Washington Capitals defensemen performance during the 2022-23 regular season, we’ll be taking a look at John Carlson and his contributions on the ice this season.
Carlson, 33, was drafted in the first round (27th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry draft and made his NHL debut in the 2009-10 season, appearing in 22 games. Carlson played a full season in 2010-11, earning him a spot on the all-rookie first team and fifth in the Calder Trophy race. Following the Capitals franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, Carlson signed an eight-year extension that carried an $8M cap hit.
Fast forward to this season, Carlson suffered a scary head injury from a Brenden Dillon slap shot in a game against the Winnipeg Jets on December 23. Carlson ended up playing only 40 games this season, missing all of January and February until returning in late March. Although he only played in 40 games, Carlson still racked up nine goals and 20 assists for 29 points. That would be on pace for 59 points in a full 82 game campaign.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, HockeyDB, and HockeyViz. Contract and transaction information are courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
PERFORMANCE DURING FIVE-ON-FIVE PLAY
We’ll start our evaluation of Carlson’s play in the most important game situation: five-on-five play. Here’s a breakdown of his performance in key metrics this season:
Overall, Carlson posted some pretty strong possession metrics this season. That performance is buoyed by heavy offensive zone starts, but that’s exactly what you’d expect from your primary offensive defenseman.
As a running theme for the Caps during the entire season, Carlson’s actual goals for percentage (GF%) trails behind his expected goals for percentage (xGF%). Even with the heavy offensive deployments during five-on-five play and playing with the team’s top offensive talent, it’s clear that the Caps do need some top six scoring help, as mentioned by General Manager Brian MacLellan in his post-season press conference.
Let’s add some in-depth context to these numbers by looking at Carlson’s possession and shot generation/suppression metrics by month this season:
Most of the defensemen on the roster had a bit of a slow start in October, but saw a lot of momentum going into November and through December. Carlson definitely falls into that group, and posted outright gaudy numbers in November and December, until he suffered the head injury on the Dillon slap shot.
The Caps were scorching hot in December and their momentum basically screeched to a halt after Carlson was out of the lineup for the end of December through mid-March. Obviously, Carlson came back in March after the trade deadline, and you can see the impact of a worse roster with nothing to play for had on his overall performance. If Carlson was never injured, it’s quite possible the Caps would have ended up higher in the standings.
Here’s Carlson’s goals for percentage (GF%) and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) by month:
November was pretty interesting. Carlson posted a pretty paltry 31.25 GF%, trailing just under 20 percentage points behind his xGF%. That’s practically an inversion from what we’d expect with Carlson’s possession and shot generation metrics we covered prior to this.
December is really telling, because Carlson was playing at a high level, indicated by his 59.76 xGF%, but even exceeded that with his 61.11 GF%. That means the Caps finished at a relatively high rate when Carlson was on the ice.
I’m not putting a lot of stock into his March performance since he was out for an extended period of time and only played in four games that month. After he shook some of the rust off, his April rebounded to the levels we saw back in October and November (at least in terms of xGF%).
Let’s further examine the differentials here by using goals for per sixty (GF/60) and expected goals for per sixty (xGF/60) by month:
Interestingly enough, the Caps scored fewer actual goals for than expected per sixty in their scorching hot month of December while Carlson was on the ice, even though his actual GF% exceeded his xGF% in the previous metric. This means that the Caps were just a tinge more effective defensively that month when Carlson was on the ice as well. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Overall, we do see a clear lack of scoring touch this season from the Caps, as indicated by Carlson’s GF/60 trailing behind his xGF/60 in every month he appeared outside of October.
Here’s the opposite side of the coin, where we’ll compare Carlson’s goals against per sixty (GA/60) versus expected goals against per sixty (xGA/60):
Overall, the month of November was really the only area where you saw complete struggles between GA/60 and xGA/60. Ideally, you’d like to see a bit lower rates in both GA/60 and xGA/60, but with Carlson’s skill set being effectively only offensively focused, it’s not too much of a surprise.
Here’s a look at the top four-most utilized pairings for Carlson this past season:
With two of Carlson’s most utilized pairings consisting of players that are no longer Capitals, we’ll sort of skate around those.
Something that’s rather confounding is Fehervary and Carlson getting only 39.68% of their zone starts in the offensive zone. That’s completely misusing Carlson and deploying him in unfavorable situations for what value he brings. I’d like to see something closer to what he saw with Rasmus Sandin. If Fehervary and Carlson are reunited as a pairing next season, I’d expect a higher offensive zone start percentage with a potential rebound in xGF%.
PLAYER VALUE METRICS
First, let’s take a look at how Carlson has fared in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) this season compared to the rest of his career:
Overall, through the course of his career, Carlson has been a valuable player. Although his defensive capabilities have diminished over the course of his career, his offensive value still is high enough to validate his $8M cap hit. Obviously, he had some struggles this season in GAR, but that’s probably more due to his injury than actual performance, as we’ve covered so far.
Here’s Carlson’s Rate-Adjusted Plus Minus, which is used to compare a player’s performance in key metrics at a rate of sixty minutes of play to the league average:
This basically validates the concept that Carlson is still an elite offensive defenseman that has his faults defensively. His offensive RAPM metrics are borderline elite, while posting below league average defensive metrics during even strength.
Realistically, Carlson just needs to be utilized correctly. His deployments should be sheltered, and he shouldn’t really be put in any high leverage defensive zone starts, especially late in important games.
Here’s Carlson’s individual isolated impact when he’s on the ice via HockeyViz:
The +18% impact during even-strength offense is effectively elite tier. The Caps are much better offensively when Carlson is on the ice. The interesting thing here is that the Caps aren’t much worse defensively during even-strength when Carlson is on the ice, only posting 1% higher xGA/60 when he’s on the ice versus when he’s on the bench.
2023-24 SEASON FORECAST
The next head coach of the Washington Capitals needs to use Carlson the right way. He should have a nearly 70% offensive zone start percentage. He shouldn’t play on the penalty kill unless absolutely needed there. He should continue to be heavily utilized on the power play.
Realistically, Carlson is a top-tier offensive defenseman. Players with his skill set are more highly paid in terms of defensive player cap hits. He just needs to be used in a role where he can contribute offensively while not being taken advantage of defensively. He’s still a top four quality defenseman in this league, he’s just not quite a true 1D that can contribute at high levels on both ends of the ice.
By Justin Trudel
PREVIOUS BLUELINE REVIEWS
Martin Fehervary: 2022-23 Washington Capitals Season Review
Rasmus Sandin: 2022-23 Washington Capitals Season Review
Alexander Alexeyev: 2022-23 Washington Capitals Season Review
Trevor van Riemsdyk: 2022-23 Washington Capitals Season Review
Nick Jensen: 2022-23 Washington Capitals Season Review
Lots of Carlson-haters out there. Look what happens when he can’t play!!
Roger that. His defense chaps my ass at times, but we would be in a whole world of hurt if we didn’t have his offense. And I think we got a taste of that, as you note.
Almost like we were seeing a live action take of “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Clarence showed us how the team would look sans John Carlson. A total disaster.
I think “Paul Coffey.” Not the greatest defender but the Gold Standard of offensive defensemen. Was a winner everywhere he went. Also a notorious Caps-killer. Longevity too, played forever.
With proper coaching and the other six D-men pulling their weight, Carlson could be a force in next season’s Eastern Conference Finals
The problem is the misuse of his talents. Because the roster doesn’t have a shutdown pair JC to frequently gets matched against the other teams top lines. Need to find shutdown Dman to relieve JC of that responsibility and let him use his offensive talents.
Greetings folks! Just a quick note, if you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to NoVa Caps posts in the “subscribe” box located in the upper right corner. Thank you!