2013 Rink Wrap: John Carlson

Photo by Clyde Caplan/clydeorama.com

From Alzner to Ward, we're taking a look at and grading the 2013 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2013-14. Next up, John Carlson.

Japers' Rink Player Card (click for hi-res version; a glossary of terms used in this post can be found here; data via Behind the Net, Hockey Analysis, CapGeek and NHL.com; h/t Habs EOTP):

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Carlson and his most frequent partners:

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2013 Capitals 5v5 Defenseman Usage, via Hockey Abstract:

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Carlson's Past Four Seasons (via Hockey Analysis):

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Key Stat: Carlson was the only defenseman on the Capitals to average more than two minutes per game on each special teams unit. League-wide, he was one of only 13 blueliners to average over 2:45 on the penalty kill and over two minutes on the PP.

Interesting Stats: Carlson had 11 points at home and 11 on the road, but all five of his power-play points came away from Verizon Center, while five of his six goals were scored there.

The Good: There is a strong argument that John Carlson was the Caps' most important defender this year. He didn't have the most points (at even-strength or on the power play), and he wasn't the best at keeping the puck out of the net, but (as noted above) he was a huge factor in all three phases. Up a goal or down a goal, power play or penalty kill, there was a good chance Carlson would be on the ice. He generally isn't a flashy player, without the kind of personal highlight reel that so many of his teammates have, but he showed up every day (playing in every Caps game for a third-straight season), faced tough assignments (by both Quality of Competition and Zone Starts), did the little things (third in the league in blocked shots, two behind the league-leader) and managed to out-perform his teammates and opponents.

In addition to serving as a key component of the D corps in all three phases, Carlson also set a career-best in goals-per-60 and points-per-60 at five-a-side, all while facing the most difficult competition of any Caps defender. While the Caps had mediocre possession numbers on the season as a team, Carlson managed to be near even in both Corsi- and Fenwick-for percentage (regardless of partner), and had a strong Corsi-Relative compared to the rest of the team.

And, lest we lose sight of the big picture, we would be remiss if we didn't point out that despite raw Corsi and Fenwick numbers that tread water at best, 60% of the goals that Carlson was on the ice for ended up in the opposition's net. You could argue that the on-ice-shooting% that Carlson got this year is not sustainable, but 10.6% is also not completely off the charts. At the end of the day, when you face the top offensive players on the other team and you manage to out-score them by 50%, you've done a solid job.

Perhaps most notable in Carlson's 2013 season is that for the first time since he and Karl Alzner became full-time NHL players, Carlson spent more time over the course of the season skating with another defensman than he did with Alzner - in fact, Alzner was just fourth on the list of Carlson's most-common partners, as detailed in the chart above. Separating Carlson and Alzner - a somewhat bold move, given their comfort level with one another (though not given their rough start to the season) - allowed the Caps to ice a deeper defensive corps, providing the coaching staff with more options. That Carlson was out-performing the defenders who faced easier assignments speaks volumes about the work he put in this season, and it's easy to question whether the Caps could have dug out of the early hole they dug and won the division if Carlson wasn't able to carry a shutdown pair by himself (and we do mean "carry," as he spent most of the season with John Erskine). It's hard not to wonder what John Carlson could do with a stronger defensive partner, similar to all those pairs that Alex Ovechkin is forced to battle during the playoffs every year.

The Bad: Despite the possession and scoring numbers, Carlson was also on the ice for a lot of goals-against. So many, in fact, that only 9 players in the entire league were on the ice for more goals against than Carlson. While it's tempting to suggest that being separated from Alzner could explain the volume of goals against, Carlson was also on the ice for the fourth-most goals against in the league last year. The next likely reason for Carlson's high goals against numbers would be luck, but the .931 even strength save percentage the goalies put up with him on the ice wouldn't tend to support that claim (although the fact that this was only 5th-highest on the Caps D corps does indicate that his teammates were a bit luckier than he was).

On the PK the story is a bit different, however. Carlson was on the ice for 21 goals-against on the penalty kill, and the .832 save percentage he had behind him was worst among defenders. That certainly helps explain some of the problem, as those 21 goals represent about 1/3 of the total for which Carlson was on the ice, but there still has to be concern when the penalty killing unit has so much trouble with their top defender (by ice time) on the ice. That the Capitals bled goals-against with Carlson on the ice for the last two seasons is troubling, especially if he is to continue to be used in a shutdown role against tough competition.

The other area of concern for Carlson has been consistency. Fans entered the season wondering whether "2012 playoff John Carlson" or "2011-12 regular season John Carlson" would show up. Early in the year it appeared to be the latter, but after about the first six of the season we started to see the John Carlson that fans have been hoping and expecting to see on a regular basis for some time now. While the turnaround is nice, however, consistency is vitally important from the key players on NHL teams. A top-pair defenseman that only sometimes plays like a top-pair defenseman is tough to rely on.

Lastly, as was the case with so many of his teammates, the great scoring numbers Carlson had all year dried up in the playoffs as he put up just one assist - and was a minus-4 - in the first round series loss. To be sure, Carlson is low on the list of culprits for the loss, but with three games lost by one goal, even a tiny bit more production (or a goal prevented here and there) could have had a significant impact on the series.

The Vote: Rate Carlson below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season - if he had the best year you could have imagined him having, give him a 10; if he more or less played as you expected he would, give him a 5 or a 6; if he had the worst year you could have imagined him having, give him a 1.

The Discussion: John Carlson has been blessed and burdened by extremely high expectations from almost the minute he was drafted. After (parts of) four NHL seasons (and playoffs), has he lived up to those expectations? Will we have to continue to wonder whether we will see "regular season" or "playoff" John Carlson? What is his role on the blueline, and the team, going forward? Will he continue to be a jack of all trades, master of none, or will he take another step and become elite offensively or defensively? What would it take for him to earn a "10"?

More on Carlson's season: Peerless: John Carlson, By The Tens
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