It’s no easy task, being a defenseman tasked with defending the opposition’s top offensive threat on any given night. But it’s that sort of pressure that makes John Carlson’s ascent through the Washington Capitals’ ranks one of the NHL’s most exciting.
When Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom faced off last week, things couldn’t have gone much better for Carlson: Washington scored a pair of goals and shut out the Edmonton Oilers with a scoreless third period. He finished with seven blocks.
Carlson has just one point in 11 games this season, but that score came in a 3-2 victory in Toronto. The second period set the tone for the game and showed that the Caps’ sixth-year defenseman’s offensive skills can be utilized, just as they have been at the professional level for the last decade.
Carlson has 11 goals and 62 points in 257 games, both better than his totals last season. After a tear in the early part of last season, Carlson hasn’t generated as many scoring chances. He’s also allowed a career-high 52 shots on goal, ahead of the 52 he allowed in 2014-15, his rookie year.
Still, for a defenseman so young, Carlson seems to be finishing his games strong, which feels like a new development.
“He takes a lot of pride in that,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said about Carlson’s personal success. “He feels good about the way he’s playing in all situations, in all parts of the game, but when it’s really going to count, he’s getting it done.”
Through his first 109 NHL games, Carlson’s best scored-against average was 2.72, and the only time he led the league in goals allowed was in 2008-09 when he allowed seven goals in 76 games. But after the Capitals selected Carlson with the 17th overall pick in the 2010 draft, he’s made an impressive transition to a full-time position.
“I think I’ve continued to get stronger,” Carlson said. “I think I’ve gotten more comfortable, which is a big part of being a defenseman in this league, is being consistent. You’ve just got to put your head down and keep working.”
In 46 games last season, Carlson averaged 24 minutes and 37 seconds of ice time. This season, after a month with Jack Capuano behind the bench and with Trotz in charge, his average increased to 28:12.
“You realize how much ice time you’re going to get and how important it is,” Carlson said. “You’ve just got to be prepared to play, and you know how to approach your game to be efficient.”
Now Carlson’s focusing on improving both his offense and puck-moving skills. He came into this season with all the tools needed to play a top-four role in the NHL, but the past two seasons, he’s been working on coming up with the right answer.
“I need to keep getting more defensive-minded so I can take some of the offensive stuff away from the forwards,” Carlson said. “Like, working on trying to do the right thing defensively and finishing the play. And then just trying to extend my game offensively so I can take some more space away from the defensemen who are playing against me.”
He admits his skill set has come a long way in the years since his rookie season. Right now, it seems he’s finally positioned to be the player he aspires to be.
“I’m just going to make the most of it,” Carlson said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now.”