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Projecting John Carlson

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The Capitals’ No. 1 defenseman set career-highs across the board in 2014-15. What can we expect moving forward?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason departure of Mike Green leaves John Carlson as the Capitals' primary offensive blueliner. It's a role for which he's already pretty well suited; the 25-year-old Carlson finished fifth among defensemen in points in 2014-15 while playing tough minutes, with good underlying numbers, as well — second on the Caps' blueline in Corsi (to Nate Schmidt) and passing offense (again, to Schmidt), too.

With Green in Detroit and with Matt Niskanen's more modest output, one of the team's pressing questions going forward is whether Carlson can keep it up. He's certainly at an age where big jumps in performance are possible, but there's no guarantee he maintains that high level of production.

Indications are that on this team, Carlson can.

Offense comes mainly on the power play or at five on five. The former is a fairly easy case to analyze. Green was terrific playing the power-play point for the Caps — over the last three years, he ranked third in points per 60 at five on four, and fourth in assists per 60 (first in primaries). But Carlson was slightly better — second (to Kevin Shattenkirk) and first (third in primaries), respectively, and scored more goals in his own right.

At the very least, Carlson should be able to match Green's output — that would have meant an additional 17 points in 2014-15 or 15 in 2013-14, for a total of about 30-35 (or more if the Capitals draw more penalties). With that much power play production, Carlson only needs to produce minimally at 5-on-5 to hit 40 points.

And Carlson over his career has been much better than "minimally productive" at five on five. Some basic 5-on-5 stats, via Hockey Analysis:

Season

TOI (min)

G/60

A1/60

A2/60

P/60

On-ice sh%

SOG/60

IPP

2010-11

1369

0.26

0.35

0.44

1.05

8.39

4.30

41.4

2011-12

1383

0.17

0.30

0.35

0.82

8.15

4.94

36.5

2013

810

0.44

0.30

0.44

1.19

10.30

5.41

42.1

2013-14

1321

0.18

0.14

0.13

0.45

7.22

5.13

22.2

2014-15

1367

0.35

0.57

0.48

1.40

8.71

5.93

54.2

There are a few things to note here. One, Carlson's tremendous 2014-15 wasn't driven by crazy on-ice shooting percentage or a high secondary assist rate, and that bodes well for sustainability. On-ice shooting percentage is essentially random for defensemen, and secondary assist rate appears to be as well. Take a look at defenseman secondary assist from one year to the next (data courtesy Behind the Net and minimum 60 GP):

D y1-->2 a2/60

On the left are defensemen who played their two 60-plus-game seasons for the same team. On the right are defensemen who played for at least two teams in the two relevant seasons. Each defenseman can appear multiple times in each graph. Carlson, for example, would appear twice: once for 2010-11 and 2011-12, and once for 2013-14 and 2014-15.

For nearly 400 data points in the "same team" set, the slope is probably nonzero, but it's small; we expect 90% regression toward the average. For the changing teams set, though, we can't say with any degree of confidence that the slope is nonzero, based on these 130-plus data points.

So while Carlson's secondary assist rate was high, he should maintain most of it this season — per the regression, about 0.36.

Primary assists were the main driver of his productivity at 5-on-5. His 0.57 primary assist rate was much higher than his previous career best 0.35 back in his rookie season, and was a big reason why his individual point percentage — the percentage of on-ice goals the player picked up a point on — was a high 54.2%. (The only full-time defenseman in the neighborhood of 50% long-term is Erik Karlsson; Carlson's career mark is a still-strong 39%.) That primary assist rate, like his IPP, is high. The best players put up long-term is around 0.45 (Mark Streit, Brian Rafalski, and Victor Hedman, to name a few). So Carlson's mark should drop back. Using the same method as above, we can estimate by how much.

D y1-->2 a1/60

The primary assist year-over-year relationship is still weak, but it's far stronger than that of secondary assists. The regression results suggest about 0.36 primary assists per 60.

We might expect even more assists from Carlson, though, given the offensive-zone system changes Barry Trotz has implemented. The low-to-high scheme should give a trigger-happy blueliner like Carlson more opportunities for assists than he had in 2013-14 — in other words, his assist rate that year, and therefore the regression result, might underrate Carlson's ability to add assists. The additions of talented playmakers like Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie should mean Carlson will have more opportunities to get the puck on net and pick up a goal or an assist, too.

On the goals front, Carlson was only a little higher than his career rate, and goals are far more sustainable than assists for defensemen. Using the same method, we'd predict Carlson to score 0.24 goals per 60. Given that he tends to shoot for a relatively high percentage (top 60 among D) and his shot rate has been increasing over time, something in the 0.25-0.30 range might make for a better estimate.

At 0.25 goals, 0.36 primary assists, and 0.36 secondary assists per 60 minutes, and 1300 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5, Carlson should have 21 points at 5-on-5 next year. And remember, that's conservative. If he stays healthy, he should easily top 1300 minutes and might even break 1400 (which would have put him in the top 30 in 2014-15).

If the Capitals' even-strength offense improves and he continues to benefit from the system changes (which both seem likely), he may get to 25 or 30 even-strength points (a step down from his 38 in 2014-15, but still very good). Throw in a slightly conservative estimate of 30 power play points and for Carlson, another 55-point campaign — and top-10 finish in Norris voting — is entirely realistic.