"He has moments of greatness, but he's not there. We just want to make sure that he gets better and he doesn't think he's right there." - Bruce Boudreau on John Carlson
There's no question that John Carlson came into this season with a sparkling resume and tons of potential. With his talent and poise (and the fact that "glory follows him"), he became the offseason focus of many a Caps fan who hoped he would immediately step in to be something of a Mike Green-lite – the future of the Caps’ blue line today, another potent weapon to round out an already talented group of young defensemen.
That’s a lot of pressure to pin on a kid playing in his first full NHL season and with only twenty-nine NHL games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt. Because while he has shown he’s capable of playing at this level, and while the potential is still there for this to be a big year for Carlson, sometimes it's important to remember that at only 20, he's...well, only 20.
Never was that more clear than in the last few weeks, when injuries to key members of the Caps' blueline forced Carlson into a role that is perhaps, at least for now, beyond his particular abilities.
When Mike Green injured his shoulder against the Islanders four games in, all eyes naturally turned to Carlson as the logical successor. An offensive-minded, slick-skating defenseman in a similar mold to Green, Carlson would have to step up and fill the void left by the Norris Trophy candidate - not an easy task for anyone, let alone a kid in his first full NHL season. And with another injury to fellow blueliner Tom Poti before and after Green's absence, the weight Carlson was being asked to carry got even heavier.
The biggest and most immediate impact on Carlson's role was his ice time, which increased dramatically. Prior to this season Carlson had only ever skated over twenty minutes a night four times, all in the playoffs. And in the early part of the 2010-11 season his minutes remained right around there, with Carlson seeing on average about 18-20 minutes a night. With the loss of Green and Poti, however, that number jumped to 24-26 minutes a night, and his special teams time jumped from a few minutes on the penalty kill to 3-4 minutes on both the penalty kill and the power play.
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This increased ice time has benefits, of course – every minute he’s on the ice is another minute of learning, another step in Carlson’s evolution to a full-fledged NHL defenseman.
The downside, though, is that the usual mistakes he'd be expected to make are amplified (both in sheer number and impact) thanks to his high ice time, the consequences that much worse because of the situations he’s been put in out of pure necessity. The missed assignments, the shots taken a second too late, the reaction time a second too slow, the passes that go awry…all part of the learning process to be sure, but they're less likely to have a strong impact on the game when compressed into second-/third-pair work than they are when skating top minutes.
And it's shown. In just eleven games played this season, Carlson has been on the ice for twelve goals against (eight even strength, three power play and one shorthanded), the highest on the team and almost half the total goals allowed for the entire season. In fact, he has gone just three games all year without being on the ice for at least one goal by an opponent, one of which was a 3-0 shutout of Carolina - and all while skating against relatively easy competition.
It hasn't been all bad, of course. Carlson's six points are tied for third-best among all rookies and tied for fourth-best on the team (although it's been awhile since he registered a point, perhaps as a result of the additional burden he's taken on). While he's been on the ice for twelve goals against, he's also been on the ice for fourteen Caps' goals and is a +3 on the season so far. He's remained poised despite being asked to substitute for not one but two key players on the Washington blue line so early in the season, despite playing without the consistency of a regular defensive partner, and despite battling an injury of his own.
The reality is that considering the tasks he's been asked to take on and the ice time he's skated, John Carlson has done a relatively decent job. He is, as expected, a talented young player with tremendous upside and the potential to someday take his place among the best defensemen in the League.
After seeing the early returns, however, it's clear that the key word remains "someday".