Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden gathered his players at center ice after practice Monday. They soon erupted in cheers, tapping their sticks on the ice in celebration after being informed Caps defenseman John Carlson was nominated as a finalist for this year’s Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman during the regular season.
“It’s an honor for me personally,” Carlson told reporters on a Zoom press conference. “It’s also a cool thing for everyone within your team and organization that has rallied behind you.”
Carlson, an alternate captain of the Capitals, has spent his entire career in Washington since being drafted in 2008.
“I love this area,” Carlson, who is atop the franchise lists in almost all metrics for defensemen, added in an interview with Caps’ scribe Mike Vogel. “I love this team. It means a lot to me and my family to contribute all these years.”
Carlson is the favorite to win the award over fellow finalists Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the award has already completed, but the results have yet to be announced. In recent years, the award has frequently gone to the game’s more offensive-minded defensemen (although there are a few exceptions, notably the Capitals’ Mike Green during his record-setting 31 goal 2008-09 campaign).
“John had an unbelievable year,” Josi said. “I love playing against Washington. His passing ability, his skill level, he’s unbelievable.”
No defenseman showed up on the scoresheet as much Carlson did during the league’s truncated campaign. The Capitals were the second-highest scoring team in NHL during the 69 games they played, and Carlson provided much of that firepower, with 15 goals and 60 assists for a total of 75 points. His 26 power-play points, second in the league, helped keep the Capitals’ sometimes stagnant power play afloat. He logged 25 minutes per game, again shouldering much of the load for Washington.
“I think he was the best defenseman in the NHL this year,” Carlson’s teammate Richard Panik said. “I think he has been for a while.”
Carlson has been prone to some defensive lapses, which tend to be more obvious than a solid defensive play and could stick in voters’ minds, perhaps unfairly given his overall play. Caps forward Nic Dowd defended his teammate’s defensive skills.
“You don’t see him playing a lot of defense because he makes such smart decisions he’s never in the D-zone,” Dowd said. “I think that’s overlooked, overshadowed by his offensive ability. That’s what separates him from the other candidates, in my opinion. He’s playing against the top guys every single night, he’s playing top minutes and he’s still finding ways to be successful — not just on the scoresheet.”
Since the 1993-94 campaign, Carlson’s 2019-20 season and Green’s 2008-09 year are the only instances of a defenseman averaging more than 1.05 points per game with at least 60 games played. Carlson is also the first defenseman on pace to garner just shy of 90 points and 70 assists since that 1993-94 season. (Ray Bourque and Sergei Zubov were quite good.)
Carlson finished 4th in the league in assists this year, trailing only a few of the NHL’s most prominent high scoring talents: Leon Draistaitl, Connor McDavid and Artemi Panarin. He tied for 12th in the league in points. Again, Carlson was only bested by some of the league’s best forwards.
“Thinking about something, working at it and then seeing it fulfilled is a pretty cool achievement for me,” Carlson told Vogel.
While Josi topped the Predators in points — the only defenseman save for Carlson to so for his team — he still trailed the Caps’ 30-year-old blueliner by 10 points in the final tally. Hedman, who won the award two years ago, was another 10 points back in third place.
The myriad of impressive statistics for Carlson is somewhat mind-numbing, but the Capitals are about to embark on a stretch of games where victory is the only thing that matters.
The focus now shifts to the 2020 playoffs in Toronto, where the Capitals will play their first meaningful game in four months. When the puck drops in August, Carlson might as well be starting a whole new season.
The Capitals’ chances of winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons will rest largely on Carlson’s play — and in a year dominated by a global pandemic, individual trophies take a backseat to the quest for the NHL’s biggest award.
“We get a chance to do something we all love to do,” Carlson said of resuming the quest for a championship. “We get to compete for something we all want at the end of the season.”