WASHINGTON, D.C. – John Carlson is three wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup and four weeks (or less) away from a life-changing payday.
And he’s playing the best hockey of his life.
“Yeah, I would say that,” says Carlson, the NHL’s best impending unrestricted free agent not named John Tavares.
“I think you learn a lot through different scenarios, and this year has been a tipping point for wisdom versus youth. I like where my game’s at right now.”
Wisdom and youth. Oh, to have both at once. Young enough to keep pace with a rapidly accelerating league, wise enough to crash the open market when the iron’s hot.
Not only did Carlson’s career-high points lead all NHL blueliners in scoring this season, he’s topped them all again in the bonus round (17 points). He tilts the ice, and he’s on it nearly half the time. Carlson’s team-high 24:47 ice time in the regular season has jumped more than a minute to 25:50 when it matters most, and his plus-nine playoff rating ranks second (to Brooks Orpik) among all D-men.
Want to score when he’s checking you? You better cross-check him to the ice first.
As the Capitals prepare to host their first Stanley Cup Final game in 20 years, the gaudy personal numbers don’t matter, Carlson says. Yep, he’s a hockey player.
In the greatest campaign of a career full of great ones — world junior gold, a Calder Cup, two Presidents’ trophies — Carlson deserves more credit. When he wasn’t selected to the All-star Game, teammate Braden Holtby called snub.
“Just the system, the way the picking is, he’s the victim this year,” the goalie said at Tampa’s all-star weekend. “I’ve always believed John’s a tremendous defenceman and one of the best in the league.”
T.J. Oshie has rocked the red and the red, white and blue on the U.S. national team with Carlson. The friends linked for a jaw-dropping give-and-go in Game 1.
Practising against him daily, Oshie says Carlson is “not even close” to getting the respect he deserves as one of the world’s elite.
“A lot of people are forgetting about big 7-4 back there,” Oshie says. “He doesn’t have the flash and flair that some of these other guys have. They’re going up the ice, toe-dragging guys and all this stuff, but to me he seems impossible to get by as a defenceman.
“He plays in all situations, and he led the NHL in points by a defenceman, so people are leaving him out, but I don’t think he’s too upset by it. He’s very team-oriented, and you see that in his play.”
Beyond his teammate’s offensive upside, Matt Niskanen says Carlson’s work on the back end has been solid for years. Helps that he’s 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds.
“So strong. Big dude. He’s a bull,” Niskanen says. “Down in the corners, he can get the puck back quick because he can separate the man from the puck. Skates really well for a bigger guy, and he doesn’t have to defend as much when he’s moving the puck real well. He’s got a lot of tools.”
Coach Barry Trotz credits Carlson’s work with defence coach Todd Reardon as well as the influence of pure defenders like Orpik and Niskanen to filling Carlson’s tool kit and pushing him to drill down on the nitpicky stuff in each shift.
“Sometimes when you’re a very highly skilled guy, those details don’t matter as much to you because you are able to get away with it. When you’re not as skilled, you rely on the details. That’s your security blanket,” explains Trotz, another intriguing UFA.
“I think what John has done is, he’s got a very high skill level and now he’s learned to have those details and when you do that you become an elite defenceman like he is the National Hockey League.”
Going back to their success with AHL Hershey, Holtby has shared more ice with Carlson than any other Cap. As the second-last and final lines of defence, the two have a sturdy trust in one another.
“I know John plays every minute like he’s changing our team in a positive direction,” Holtby says. He’s a calming influence on our team. Running the power play, he makes it look easy with his poise and his deception. He’s got to be up there in that conversation [among the world’s best].”
After six years of over delivering on a $3.97 million cap hit, Carlson will be compensated like one.
Washington already has three veteran defencemen with cap hits above $5 million in place for 2018-19: Niskanen ($5.75 million), Orpik ($5.5 million) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million).
Carlson is more valuable than all of them. Did we mention he shoots right?
Further, other core components of the most successful Caps squad in the Ovechkin era will also be seeking extensions. Among them are top-line winger Tom Wilson (RFA); bottom-six fixtures Jay Beagle (UFA) and Devante Smith-Pelly (RFA); stellar backup goalie Philipp Grubauer (RFA); and Carlson’s smart rental partner Michal Kempny (UFA).
If Evander Kane can fetch seven years times $7 million from the San Jose Sharks, it’s not ridiculous to think the league’s highest-scoring defenceman could command $8 million per season on a long-term deal.
The Capitals faced a similar cap crunch last July, and it cost them Marcus Johanssen, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk. At that time, Brian MacLellan said he never considered buying out Orpik, which would free up an extra $3 million in cap space. The GM might be pushed to consider that or a trade in the coming weeks as Carlson is now due to hit the open market in less than a month.
Several teams in the Eastern Conference, especially, have good reason and the cash flow to wine-and-dine Carlson in the negotiating window. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils are among them.
Carlson’s journey to the big leagues whisked him through Newark, London, Ont., Indianapolis, and Hershey, Pa.
Born in Natick, Mass., he moved to Colonia, N.J., with his family when he was five. Growing up, he played for the New Jersey Rockets, admiring Scott Stevens and the Devils.
“We’re going to want him back no matter what,” MacLellan told NHL.com in January, “so we’re going to make our best effort to bring him back.”
Carlson’s wife, Gina, is from Washington. They have two young children and a mansion here. Moving would be a disruption. Oshie went to the UFA wire a year ago and ultimately stayed put.
Has he talked free agency strategy with Carlson?
“Not yet,” Oshie answers. “Me and Johnny are pretty close, but I think — no, I know: Washington is where he wants to be.”
Carlson has a thoughtful grasp on the team psyche. He believes being an annual contender without truly breaking through has added a layer of appreciation for what’s happening now. The Capitals have never been so relaxed, so confident. Most important, he stresses, the will has never been so high.
“Maybe we deserved better before,” Carlson considers. Then he dips into his aforementioned wisdom. If you stick to something that’s easy to go astray from, it’s that much more special to accomplish it.
“When you fail as much as we have in the past, it’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself. The young guys especially have a great influence on us. They allow us to take a step back and realize we’re all a little too high-strung.”
We wonder aloud if finally making it all the way to Round 4 has amplified his desire to sign an extension.
“I don’t have any doubts about this team. I never have, and I never will,” Carlson says.
“I love it, playing in D.C., and that’s all I know.”