Given John Carlson is two years removed from receiving a handful of votes for the Norris Trophy, it’s probably not apt to call his play this season a breakout. It’s probably not even fair to call it a resurgence given he’s improved with just about every passing season he’s played in the NHL. So, maybe the best thing to call Carlson’s current campaign is timely, because if there was ever a moment for the Washington Capitals defenseman to put his best foot forward, it’s the season before he’s set for unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.
To be clear, this is indeed the best season Carlson has ever had in every way imaginable. Defensively, Carlson has been crucial to the Capitals’ survival, especially at a time when the Washington blueline is possibly thinner than it has been since his arrival. The proof of that can be found in the fact no one has taken more defensive-zone starts for Washington at 5-on-5 than Carlson or that he’s averaging upwards of 26 minutes per night for the Capitals. That’s about three minutes more than the next-closest Capitals defender, Dmitry Orlov, and the fifth-highest average ice time in the entire NHL. The only defensemen with higher average ice times are Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter, Erik Karlsson and Rasmus Ristolainen.
And while there’s rarely any flash to solid defensive play which can sometimes make praise hard to come by, Carlson has more than made up for it by making his presence felt as an offensive driver for the Caps. On Wednesday night in Washington, for instance, Carlson continued what has been a memorable offensive campaign by extending his point streak to four games with a pair of assists in the Capitals' come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. The two helpers were significant, too, in that they lifted the 28-year-old to the 40-point plateau. It marks only the second time in his career Carlson has scored 40 points in a season.
That Carlson has already hit 40 points with 32 games remaining on Washington’s schedule is worth noting, as well. Previously, his career-best point output came in the 2014-15 campaign. He fired home 12 goals and 55 points en route to a 10th-place finish in Norris voting. At his current pace, Carlson is primed to finish with 11 goals and 65 points. He already ranks in the NHL's top three in scoring by a rearguard, and the chances are the Washington blueliner will finish right behind Brent Burns and John Klingberg for the scoring lead among D-men by season’s end.
It’s the timing of all of this that’s most important, however. In any other campaign, Carlson’s offensive output and reliable defensive play would be considered a great thing for the Capitals and nothing more. But as he heads into the final five months of his current contract with unrestricted free agency on the horizon, Carlson’s standout season has to come with some serious consideration as to what Washington will have to pay to keep the rearguard around.
Presently, Carlson’s contract carries a cap hit that’s a hair less than $4 million. And that has been, for a number of years now, a pretty team-friendly deal given his performance at both ends of the ice. Consider that since 2012-13, the first season of the six-year pact, Carlson ranks 19th in ice time among defenders at an average of 23:46, 15th in points having accumulated 230 in 390 games, tied for 12th in power play production with 91 PP points and he's a top-10 shot generator since the lockout-shortened season began.
Some might suggest, however, that Carlson’s current season has inflated those totals. Fair enough. But removing this season’s performance from the equation still leaves Carlson with the 23rd-highest average ice time, 19th in points and 19th in power play production. Given those numbers, and including what he’s done this season, the expectation should be that Carlson, who's in the prime of his career, has a salary commensurate with the 20 or so highest-paid rearguards in the league. What would that look like, though?
According to CapFriendly, the top 20 defenders in terms of cap hit range from $9 million (P.K. Subban) to $5.75 million (Toby Enstrom, Matt Niskanen and Dougie Hamilton), with an average cap hit of $6.89 million. And something in the $6.89-million-per-season range doesn’t seem too far-fetched for Carlson given the way contracts have gone over the past season. Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk earned themselves new pacts worth $6.5 million and $6.65 million, respectively, and with salaries rising season over season, Carlson could certainly command upwards of $7 million per on his next contract.
The kicker in all of this, of course, is his pending free agency and the lack of defensive depth on the market this summer, two factors that would have increased Carlson’s value regardless of his career year. Outside of Carlson, the only other top-four blueliners who are likely to be a sought-after free agent this summer — and this is assuming Zdeno Chara stays put in Boston — are Mike Green and Dan Hamhuis. That’s it. Maybe John Moore fits the bill, but he’s further from a sure-bet than veterans Green and Hamhuis, who each have a wealth of experience skating top-four minutes. Thus, teams seeking a defensive upgrade are going to be mighty interested in bringing Carlson aboard. That only stands to drive his asking price up, particularly if he makes it to the negotiation week ahead of free agency without a new contract from the Capitals.
The good news for Washington is there’s no single reason why retaining Carlson is out of the question, even at nearly double his current price. With early projections hinting at a several-million dollar increase in the salary cap, the Capitals could have $20 million with which to work and no true big-name free agents to retain. The most notable are Tom Wilson, Madison Bowey and Philipp Grubauer, but all three are restricted free agents. And with some creative cap work — and maybe even a buyout of the final season of Brooks Orpik’s contract — Washington could have more wiggle room under the spending limit without having to rejig their roster or move out a core piece.
That’s a good thing, too, because with the way this season has gone for Carlson, the Capitals are going to need to pay up to keep him around.
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