If John Carlson tests the free agent market on July 1, he would be the most valuable defenceman out there by a wide margin. A right shot and the NHL’s reigning blue line scoring champion in both the regular and post-season, Carlson is fresh off a Stanley Cup win and still just 28 years old, firmly in his prime.
The Washington Capitals drafted Carlson 27th overall in 2008 and he’s made it his home since arriving in the NHL. But at the team’s locker clean out day on Wednesday, Carlson alluded to the fact this is a big decision for him, with a lot of factors to consider.
“We’ll see what happens. We’ll talk and go from there,” Carlson said. “I love it here and all that. I want to stay here, but there’s more to it than that.
“This has been my home,” he continued. “I’ve lived here every summer since I’ve been here and this is my home base. The guys that I’ve been around, the experiences we’ve had … I love the area and this is all I know.”
— Tarik El-Bashir (@TarikNBCS) June 13, 2018
The salary cap is expected to rise between $3- and $7 million from its current $75 million limit, and until that new number becomes official, it’s hard to say what Carlson’s new AAV would be. But since he’s left the door open to the possibility of leaving D.C., we decided to take a look around the league at some potential landing spots.
Perhaps no one needs him more than the team that could lose him. The Caps won the Stanley Cup after shedding a number of players for cap reasons last summer, but that’s not a sustainable model. And as surprisingly effective as Michal Kempny was (also a UFA), or as much growth as Dimitri Orlov showed, no one on that blue line brings the same dynamic offensive upside as Carlson, who scored 37 more points than the next most productive Caps blueliner. He’s also a horse who averages around 25 minutes per game.
Right now, Washington has $11.2 million in cap space, which will rise with the new number. Tom Wilson is the biggest RFA to take care of while another, Phillip Grubauer, could be traded and relieve the pressure of another re-sign.
Carlson should eat up, at minimum, $8 million of that so GM Brian McClellan may have to look at other money-saving options, such as buying out the final year of Brooks Orpik’s contract. Either way, priority No. 1 for the Stanley Cup champs is to re-sign their top defenceman.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Leafs have the forwards and the goaltenders, but they could be looking for an impactful defenceman this summer. Toronto has roughly $22.3 million in available cap space at the moment with RFAs Connor Carrick and William Nylander needing new deals. And a year from now, new deals (whatever they are) will kick in for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
Carlson may be an expensive addition, but would be a solid top-four option in an area Toronto needs to address most. He would be effective moving the puck to Toronto’s many offensive weapons up front.
As badly as the Islanders need to do something about their goaltending this summer, Lou Lamoriello also needs to vastly improve the defence. After all, they averaged 35.6 shots against per game in 2017-18, the highest mark of any team in a full season since the 1993-94 Los Angeles Kings.
Carlson isn’t known as a shutdown defender, but he’s an excellent puck-mover who gets it going towards the offensive end, which is just as effective. He had a positive relative Corsi mark on the Capitals and would go a long way towards repairing the worst blue lien in the league last season.
Although they said this year that they were going into some kind of rebuild, it’s hard to not consider the Rangers as a potential landing spot for any big-name free agent — they are always players in this market.
New York inked last year’s top UFA blueliner, Kevin Shattenkirk, to a four-year deal that came in at a lower AAV ($6.65 million) than many expected, but right now only he and Marc Staal are being paid more than $1 million on the back end — though Brady Skjei is an RFA.
The Blueshirts currently have nearly $25 million in cap space and hold three first-round picks: 9, 26 and 28. They picked Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in the first-round last season, so adding Carlson wouldn’t stop a re-tool, but could enhance or accelerate it. Plus they’d be taking him away from a division rival. It’s interesting to think of how this would shape the Rangers.
Buffalo has been building up a prospect base for so long that they should be on their way to something, but there are still holes to patch. Forward isn’t really an area of concern at this point and Casey Mittelstadt should be added to the rookie crop in 2018-19, but defence is a problem. Rasmus Dahlin will step into the NHL right away and could be the top defenceman Buffalo has immediately — adding Carlson would at least provide a buffer and take some of the offensive onus off Dahlin.
With Rasmus Ristolainen playing big minutes and Carlson a capable No. 1, Dahlin can ease into his responsibilities at the NHL level. The Sabres have roughly $19.1 million in cap space and need to sign a goalie or two — aside from that, Sam Reinhart is the only notable free agent to deal with. Buffalo had trouble keeping the puck out of their own net in 2017-18 and were the lowest scoring team as well — Carlson would transform that and their 20th-ranked power play, but he’d have to be open to the idea of stepping into the unknown here.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Although Carlson was born in Natick, Mass., he moved to Colonia, N.J. at five years old and played for the New Jersey Rockets before graduating to the USHL, OHL, AHL and finally NHL. So, there is a local connection here.
New Jersey surprised everyone by making the playoffs in 2017-18 and could return better with a healthy Cory Schneider next season. Carlson would immediately be the No. 1 blueliner on the Devils and they are losing another defenceman who averaged more than 20 minutes a night for them in John Moore, so it makes sense to give Carlson this money in an effort to push their success forward.
However, as Brad Penner of USA Today noted, Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall will be due big raises two years from now and keeping them is more vital to the big picture. But Devils GM Ray Shero is not afraid of making the big and bold move, which signing Carlson certainly would be.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Sharks may be one of the more interesting teams to monitor this off-season. They already signed Evander Kane to a long-term extension with a $7 million AAV and still have $7.5 million in cap room before it rises. Tomas Hertl is the biggest RFA to keep and Joe Thornton has said he wants to return as well — if the latter takes a pay cut from $8 million, there could still be room for Carlson. The Sharks could also buy out Paul Martin, who barely played at all in 2017-18, and save $2.83 million against the cap.
The Sharks are linked in rumours to John Tavares, so if that signing happens they wouldn’t be able to also sign Carlson. But because Erik Karlsson has been linked to them in the past via trade, you have to think that Carlson could be an option to consider as well. With Brent Burns already in tow, the Sharks could come away from this summer with one of the more exciting blue lines out there.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
If the Sharks aren’t the team to watch this summer, it’s Vegas. The Stanley Cup Finalists have nearly $27 million in cap space before it rises and could still fit in Carlson after signing all their key expiring contracts. You have to think they’d be in on Tavares if he goes to market, or Karlsson if/when the Senators get serious about trading him, but again at the very least Carlson could be a fabulous backup option.
It’s worth noting here that Vegas GM George McPhee drafted Carlson when he was running the show in Washington, so there’s familiarity there. Head coach Gerard Gallant had tremendous success and is recognized as a player’s coach, so that’s intrinsically attractive.
Vegas does have an overload of defencemen, but none of them are stars yet. Shea Theodore may get there eventually, but Carlson could be a good leader in this scenario, too, and help him get there.
Theodore, Carlson, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller and Brayden McNabb would make for a pretty good-looking top six with Jon Merrill as a cheap No. 7. Vegas is a destination now and with all their cap room they are in position to add a big-ticket stud to a roster that already has proven difficult to beat.
In the past year the Avalanche have completely changed the way their franchise is looked upon. They turned an awful year right around into a playoff appearance and won big on the Matt Duchene trade that’s still going to net them what should be a high first-round pick from Ottawa either this year or, more likely, next.
The brightest days are in the future for Colorado, but they could have an opportunity to help it along this summer. GM Joe Sakic has $22.8 million in cap space right now with no big contracts to get done. They could be a dark horse player to add a big name.
Carlson would surely come in right away and be the highest-paid Avalanche player, a spot currently occupied by Nathan MacKinnon at $6.3 million. Mikko Rantanen will be an RFA next summer and eligible to re-sign this July 1, while Tyson Barrie and Sam Girard will need new deals two years from now. The point is, there are no salary cap-breaking contracts to come that Carlson would scramble.
Now, Colorado has more of a need to add up front, especially considering Cale Makar and Conor Timmins are on the way in coming years. John Tavares might be the more sensible target, but if he goes elsewhere and Carlson can be had the Avalanche should explore it and upgrade their forwards by trading one of their valued defencemen. The blue line was viewed as an area of weakness at this time last season, but suddenly they have options and depth.
The Stars have to be one of the more disappointing teams over the past two years, unable to build on a 2016 division title. The latest playoff miss cost Lindy Ruff his job and puts pressure on GM Jim Nill to move this train out of the station.
To hear new coach Jim Montgomery talk about the way he wants his team to play, you can see how Carlson would be a great fit in the system.
“On the ice, for the Dallas Stars fan, if you can think of an adjective of what we’re going to look like, it’s going to be relentless,” Montgomery said at his press conference.
“We’re going to be a puck possession team and we’re going to try and make plays everywhere on the ice. When we don’t have the puck, we’re going to pressure you so we can get it back and make more plays.”
Dallas has $17.6 million in cap space, which will rise with the new cap. But they only have one defenceman signed beyond next season — and that’s another offensive-minded player in John Klingberg. Together, Carlson and Klingberg would embody this relentless end-to-end play.
Tyler Seguin is one year away from cashing in big on his first UFA deal, but because there is so little assured on the back end Carlson seems to be worth taking a cut on here. It would make for one heck of an exciting mix.