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The Big Loss in a Season of Loss

The Caps have been missing their most important player and it may not be who you think

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

The Washington Capitals’ 2022-23 season has spun seemingly out of control over the last week or so. A team that had its post-season destiny largely in its own hands at the outset of the New Year has watched as it’s slipping away and finds itself in the throes of a five-game losing skid that sure does look like a death spiral.

Particularly notable in this last stretch has been the absence of arguably the team’s most important player and the team’s inability to cover for that absence; the letter on his sweater signifying his leadership role doesn’t even begin to speak to his importance to the club.

Since the start of the 2010-11 season, only five players have logged more ice time than John Carlson’s 21,151 minutes. That’s the equivalent of 352-plus sixty-minute games (more than four season’s worth), and more than ten percent more minutes than Ovechkin has skated over the same span.

Carlson has played these minutes at an elite level, finishing in the top-10 in Norris Trophy voting five times in the last eight years (thrice landing in the top-5) while compiling 608 points (fourth-most on the circuit among blueliners). And while Carlson isn’t anyone’s idea of a shutdown stay-at-home defender, his puck-moving skills and offensive upside more than offset any defensive shortcomings and make him an irreplaceable piece on the blueline, even at 33-years-old in Year 5 of a sizable eight-year deal.

via JFresh Hockey

Over the past two months, as Carlson recovers from a brutal head injury, the Caps are finding out just how irreplaceable he is.

Since Carlson was last in the lineup 24 games ago, the Caps are 9-12-2 and have slipped from very likely post-season participants to longshots. Their power play has gone 12-for-61, a not-abysmal 19.7% efficiency, but which is bolstered by a couple of multi-goal outings early in that stretch: over the last 18 games, the Caps’ power play is 7-for-50 (14%), but has also given up two shorthanded goals, and two of their power-play tallies came at five-on-three and six-on-four, so a net plus-3 at five-on-four since January 6. The Caps have only managed 2.78 goals per game since Carlson’s injury (24th in the League), a number that drops to a woeful - and League-worst - 2.11 over the last 18 games. Prior to Carlson’s injury, the Caps were averaging 3.08 goals per game and had a 20.8% effective power play - numbers that weren’t blowing anyone’s hair back, but were around NHL-average, perhaps impressive given the injuries they had to deal with as they tried to tread water over the season’s first half.

The differences in the Caps’ offense with and without Carlson on the ice are incredibly stark:

via HockeyViz

With Carlson on the ice at five-on-five, the Caps’ offense is operating at a “Carolina Hurricanes expected goals” rate; when he’s off the ice (as he is currently, of course), they’re in the Canucks’ neighborhood. With Carlson quarterbacking the power play, the Caps are in line with Vegas in expected goal rate; with no Carlson, their power-play is Blackhawks-esque. The Caps have a good-to-great offense with Carlson on the ice, and a bad-to-horrific one without him. Those differences add up fast, and, again, far more than offset their defensive analogs (where the Caps, for a number of reasons, post better numbers with Carlson off the ice). Here’s the Caps’ rolling 10-game expected (xGF%) and actual (GF%) goals per sixty minutes at five-on-five with an arrow marking Carlson’s last game in the lineup:

via MoneyPuck

Things went to hell - from season high-points - pretty quick. With Carlson out, the Caps have done what they can to patch the hole, as they have all season up and down the lineup. In this case, that’s meant more minutes for Erik Gustafsson (primarily on the power play) and Trevor van Riemsdyk, an increased role for the Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen pair, and the return to the lineup of Martin Fehervary. These changes have met with varying degrees of success, and Orlov has had a particularly rough go of it.

There’s simply no replacing Carlson - an offensively prolific 23-minutes-per-night, all-situation stalwart - from within. Orlov hasn’t looked like a top-pair blueliner and Jensen hasn’t distinguished himself alongside him; Gustafsson hasn’t looked like he’s capable of running this Caps power play; van Riemsdyk and Fehervary have been uneven in stepped-up roles; and Matt Irwin, Alexander Alexeyev, and Dylan McIlrath haven’t looked like NHLers. Re-insert Carlson in the lineup and everyone slots into more comfortable roles (and leagues).

The Capitals have been beset by injuries and other absences all year, and are currently without their captain. It’s been a lot to try to overcome. Too much, it seems. And a closer look helps to pinpoint exactly which straw might have broken this camel’s back.