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Career Years — Can the Uncommon Become Common?

One aspect of a championship team is players reaching career heights, and the Caps had quite a few last season. Is this a new normal?

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Two Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A Stanley Cup champions requires contributions in depth. Certainly the Washington Capitals had that on offense in 2017-2018. Eleven players recorded at least ten goals in the regular season, and 13 skaters finished with 20 or more points. The contributions were spread around in the postseason as well. Nine skaters had five or more goals (there was also a different nine-skater group with game winning goals), and 17 skaters had five or more points.

There is, however, a different way to look at such a thing, and will be another thing to watch for as the 2018-2019 season gets underway. That is the matter of “career years.” The most obvious examples of players having career years in the championship season for the Capitals are Tom Wilson and John Carlson. Wilson, who became a restricted free agent at the end of the 2017-2018 season, parlayed career bests in goals (14), assists (21), points, (35), even strength goals (13), and average ice time (15:59) into a six-year/$31 million contract in late July. Carlson, who was due to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, appeared in all 82 games for the fifth time in his career and posted career highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68, which led all NHL defensemen), even-strength goals (11), power play assists (28), and average ice time (24:47). If a player wanted to draw up a performance profile in a “walk year,” this is what it would look like for a defenseman. Carlson did not walk, though, signing an eight-year/$64 million deal in late June.

There are examples of this down the roster from last season. Of the top-15 point-getters for the Caps, eight of them tied or set career highs in goals, seven set career highs in points, six had career bests in even strength goals, and four tied or set career bests in power play goals:

There is a certain “on the one hand, on the other” about this. The eight skaters who tied or set career highs in goals ranged in age from 21 (Jakub Vrana) to 28 (Carlson and Lars Eller). Six of the eight finished last season with at least 340 career regular season games of experience, and two – Carlson and Eller – finished with more than 600 games. Only Vrana (94) and Chandler Stephenson (80), both under age 25, can be thought of as being in the “early-career” stage of their development.

And here we arrive at the “what to watch for” moment. There are two aspect to this. First, the situations of Wilson and Carlson bear watching for each of them entering the first year of a big contract. Questions abound. Will the big paycheck prove to be a source of great pressure to perform, perhaps to do more than what they were good enough at doing to merit such deals? Were the seasons on which the Capitals placed their trust for years to come mere spikes, uncommon (“lucky,” if you will) instances, not to be repeated? Conversely, did either or both players make that leap in scale of production to a new normal? Given Wilson’s year-to-year improvement over the past several seasons, he might merit added attention in this regard.

Second, as a group, the eight career-best goal scorers is large share of the roster posting career bests in offensive performance categories, but for the most part they are players entering or squarely in their prime production years or yet to reach that state of their development. What was a “career year” might be, or so Capitals fans hope will be, a “new normal” for most, if not all of these players. Considering the age and games of experience of Vrana and Stephenson, and the more responsible roles both could play next season, there could very well be additional room to improve their performance numbers.

Career years are, by definition, uncommon. There is a large number of Capitals claiming them in 2017-2018. One thing to watch for as the 2018-2019 season unfolds is whether the “uncommon” becomes “common” for these players. If it does, it will go a long way to giving the Caps a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.