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Johnny Be Good: In Defense of John Carlson

A look at great expectations and a good defenseman

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Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

So, uh... is John Carlson actually any good?

It seems like a crazy question to even consider for a guy that finished second in Norris Trophy voting just two seasons ago and has fourth-, fifth- and 12th-place finishes in that race in the other three of the last four years.

Yet there’s a prevailing opinion in some circles that John Carlson is, in fact, bad.

He is not.

But what is John Carlson? Let’s dig in and start with a nice overview via JFresh’s player card for Carlson, which takes a snapshot of performance over the last three years, weights it by recency (i.e. the most recent season is weighted heaviest, the oldest season gets the least weight):

via JFresh Hockey

Carlson is in the 88th percentile among NHL defensemen in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), thanks mostly to elite even-strength offensive results, very good even-strength offensive production and discipline, generally, and above-average even-strength defense (yes, really) and power-play production. And he’s doing it against high-level competition, with a mix of above-average teammates. He’s also been better this year than last and better last year than the year before it.

That’s certainly not bad.

In fact, over the last two seasons, Carlson ranks 15th among defensemen in expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR), thanks to strong even-strength and power-play offense, discipline, and, yes, above-replacement even-strength defense:

Oh, hi, Dmitry Orlov...
via Evolving-Hockey

Okay, that’s two or three years’ worth of data. But what about right now? Well, he’s above average nearly across the board in on-ice goal and shot metrics (save for the underperforming power play, for which he deserves a share of the blame):

via Evolving-Hockey

In terms of xGAR, he’s in the 93rd percentile...

via Evolving-Hockey

... a number which drops a bit if we look at actual GAR, largely because there’s a negative gap between expected and actual even-strength defense and expected and actual power-play offense:

via Evolving-Hockey

As you might suspect, the Caps are better offensively and worse defensively with Carlson on the ice (granted, the quality of his teammates and competition, respectively, factor in those assessments, to a degree). Overall, since the point of hockey is still to outscore your opponent, the Caps are better with him on the ice (+0.12 xG/60) than without (+0.06 xG/60):

via HockeyViz

Now here’s the cool part: John Carlson is a good defenseman... but the Caps have better. By xGAR, Dmitry Orlov has been better this year, and by actual GAR, Orlov and Nick Jensen have been better, and Trevor van Riemsdyk’s not far behind:

via Evolving-Hockey

And if you’re wondering if Carlson is “worth it,” given his hefty price tag, The Athletic pegs his market value at $11.6M, a cool $3.6M above what the Caps are paying him (offense puts butts in seats!):

via The Athletic

Bottom line, Carlson is (still) a terrific defenseman overall whose offensive production outweighs his defensive shortcomings, don’t let your lyin’ eyes tell you otherwise - a lot of his defensive issues might actually be the top line’s defensive issues:

via HockeyViz

Find the right defensive partner for him (Martin Fehervary continues to struggle) and, given the system in which they’re playing, the Caps could have one of the better top-four or top-six D groups in the League. Because John Carlson is actually good. Just make sure your expectations are too.