As the NHL season passed the quarter mark, the best team was the Washington Capitals, and the best player on the Capitals was John Carlson. He was leading all NHL defensemen in points by a wide margin, he was in the top 10 in the overall scoring race and ranked among the league leaders in ice time per game. He’s playing the best hockey of his career. But how does Carlson stack up in a comparison with Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning? Hedman, the 2018 Norris Trophy winner, missed a couple games this season with an injury and only started to display his top form at the end of November. When he is playing at his peak level, he is one of the NHL’s best players. Has Carlson vaulted himself into Hedman’s stratosphere? Let’s break down their games and find out.
Hedman grew up in Sweden, Carlson grew up in New Jersey. Both were born in 1990. Hedman turns 29 in December, Carlson turns 30 in January. Both have spent their entire NHL career with one organization. Carlson was drafted 27th overall by Washington in 2008 from the Indiana Ice of the USHL. After one season with OHL London and half a season with AHL Hershey, Carlson joined Washington midway through 2009-10 and has been with the Capitals ever since. Hedman was drafted second overall by Tampa Bay in 2009 from MoDo in Sweden. He joined the Lightning for the start of 2009-10 and has remained with them ever since. Both Carlson and Hedman played their 700th NHL game this season. Statistically speaking, they could not be any closer – they’re virtually tied in career goals, assists and points. Carlson has a reputation as a top-level offensive defenseman, but he has never finished among the top three in Norris Trophy voting. Hedman is respected as a top-flight, all-around defenseman. He has finished in the top three in Norris voting in each of the past three seasons and won the award in 2017-18.
There is not even a subtle distinction between the roles Carlson and Hedman are supposed to fill. They are both being paid big money to be the No. 1 blueliner on a Stanley Cup contender. They’re both relied upon to log a lot of even-strength ice time, serve as the quarterback on the top power-play unit and play on the penalty kill. Both of them are used in all situations. Lots of work, lots of pressure and lots of money.
It is incredible that two players can be in their 11th NHL season and be so close in goals, assists and points, as well as games played. You would have to be splitting hairs to give either Hedman or Carlson an edge in this category.
In this category, there is a significant difference. Carlson is no more than an average defensive defenseman. His mobility skating backwards is below average, and he is often beaten on the rush when he cannot pivot quickly enough. In the defensive zone, he is smart and can intercept passes. Once the puck in on his stick, he is elite. However, when the opposition has the puck, Carlson adopts the stance of a sword fighter with one hand on the stick. He is not forceful and seldom engages physically with an opponent. He does not lack courage. He will block shots and defend teammates. His commitment to defensive play is very average. Hedman has remarkable balance and agility for a 6-foot-6 player. He can pivot quickly from forward to backward skating, he’s usually in good position and is forceful in 1-on-1 confrontations. He plays in the face of opponents when they have the puck in Tampa Bay’s zone. Like Carlson, he’s smart enough to intercept passes and is excellent once the puck is on his stick. Unlike Carlson, he looks for chances to lay out big hits and he can intimidate opponents.
Carlson and Hedman rival Erik Karlsson as the most consistent D-men handling the puck under pressure in the defensive zone and making quality outlet passes. Washington and Tampa Bay have elite forwards who are capable of keeping the opposition on their heels. In order to accomplish this, the forwards need to receive the puck on the fly in the neutral zone. Both Carlson and Hedman deliver. They are also consistent in making good plays with the puck when they’re joining the rush. The other crucial area for offensive D-men is the ability to generate scoring chances from the point. Carlson and Hedman do that with their heads up. They make excellent plays and have elite-level shots – hard, accurate and released quickly. Carlson has a remarkable ability to receive a pass at the point while off balance and immediately unleash a lethal shot. Other than Brent Burns, I have not seen another D-man with this ability.
Both Hedman and Carlson have elite-level hockey sense in all areas of the game. Their positional play is sound, and their decisions with the puck are top-notch. With the tempo of today’s NHL, the ability of blueliners to close the gap is crucial. These two players are smart enough to close the gap before an opponent receives a pass or before he is able to accelerate. Their anticipation allows them to project where the puck is going and identify who will become the dangerous opponent. In Carlson’s case, this can serve to hide his limited mobility in backward skating.
Carlson is an elite-level offensive defenseman. His ability to generate offense overrides his average defensive play. He’s playing the best hockey of his career and is a legitimate candidate for the Norris Trophy. With only a few minor penalties, he could also generate votes for the Lady Byng Trophy for the fourth time in his career, one of the few D-men to do so. Hedman isn’t really a Lady Byng candidate. He combines offensive talent at the same level as Carlson with an aggressive defensive style that makes him elite in all aspects of the game. If he continues at this level, he is a serious threat to win his second Norris. Carlson is a quality NHL player. Hedman is the best overall defenseman in the NHL and one of the five or six most valuable players in hockey. One of the least talked about aspects of Tampa Bay’s demise in last season’s playoffs was the fact Hedman missed two of the four games. There was talk about Nikita Kucherov missing one of the games due to suspension. Media speculated this could be devastating for the Lightning because, after all, Kucherov was their MVP. He was not. Hedman was. Even when Carlson is playing the best hockey of his career, Hedman is better.