It’s always interesting to me when a coach comes in and tries to help a player evolve thanks to a previous experience. When Ken Hitchcock got to Dallas for example, he inherited up-and-coming defenseman John Klingberg, who was great on the offensive end but still working on the defensive side of things. With the help of assistant coach Rick Wilson, Hitchcock tried to mould Klingberg’s game to resemble that of Alex Pietrangelo, Hitchcock’s top blueliner when he was in St. Louis.
Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden has been going through a similar process in the past few years, first as an assistant and now as the main man with the Caps. His target was John Carlson, the emerging defenseman who played in his first All-Star Game this year and is currently top-five in points by an NHL blueliner. No one ahead of him on the list has averaged as much ice time as the 25:21 Carlson has been logging for the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
Reirden’s perspective is very intriguing, since he worked for the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins before coming over to Washington in 2014-15.
In Pittsburgh, Reirden saw the evolution of Kris Letang (who is, incidentally, right behind Carlson in ‘D’ scoring right now) from a top-four guy to a No. 1. Carlson has gone on a similar trajectory and the coach’s unique perspective gave him something to work with when he got to Washington.
“Coaching against him was a really important part of knowing the player,” Reirden said. “I saw him a lot. I was very well aware of his strengths and weaknesses because at the time, Karl Alzner and John Carlson were the go-to guys to play against Crosby, Malkin or Jordan Staal. In Pittsburgh, we were rolling out some pretty good offensive players and I think I had a really good pulse on ways I could help John improve - things I knew he struggled with against our team in Pittsburgh. I knew how the biggest rival was trying to break down his game. We worked on eliminating those deficiencies and building on some of the positives that maybe he didn’t even realize the effect he could have on the opposition with: the way he shoots the puck, joins the rush and plays with the puck in the offensive zone.”
In general - and I’m sure Caps fans don’t want to hear it - Washington owes a debt to Pittsburgh in terms of how they were built. On top of Reirden coming over, the Capitals also snagged erstwhile Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen through free agency in the summer of 2014. Both of them helped Carlson learn the systems Reirden wanted to apply to the Washington blueline and Niskanen was another example for Carlson of a player who grew into a bigger role as his career matured.
As steady as Niskanen has been however, he never had the same offensive upside as Carlson, which is why the latter should be considered at least a candidate for the Norris Trophy this spring.
Last season, Carlson established a career-high with 68 points and he’s actually on pace to better that mark this time out. Not bad, considering last year ended with the franchise’s first-ever championship. For Reirden, the All-Star Game was a just reward for Carlson’s diligence over the years.
“It really comes back to him making a commitment,” Reirden said. “You can have all the plans and ideas you want, but if he’s not willing to put in the extra work and fully commit, then he’s not going to get here.”