John Carlson '(has) been our horse for a while,' and now he's the frontrunner for the Norris

The Washington Capitals blueliner's hot start has thrust him into the spotlight, but the 29-year-old is happy to let his game speak for itself.
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Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like when you’re in a dressing room occupied by someone who takes up as much oxygen as Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals have just finished their morning skate in Toronto and Ovechkin and John Carlson come into the room and sit at their stalls at exactly the same time. So you have to choose which one to interview. Everyone gravitates to Ovechkin and he does not disappoint.

Speaking about Auston Matthews and his defensive game, Ovechkin says: “I think he should call Dale Hunter and ask him for advice.” Speaking about the travails of the talented Leafs, he comes up with: “I hope they’re gonna learn. But it’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Cup, they have to play differently.” (The Leafs should really, really, really listen to that advice and heed it. The guy knows what he’s talking about.)

Meanwhile, John Carlson, who has seven points more than Ovechkin and eight more than the next highest-scoring defenseman in the league, waits patiently and bides his time without fanfare. He looks a little like a surfer dude and has the laid-back personality to match. When he was entering the final season of his last contract, the same season the Capitals won their first and only Stanley Cup, he gave his agent one instruction on how he wanted negotiations to be handled. “I don’t want any bullsh--,” Carlson told his agent, Rick Curran, at the time.

And that pretty much sums up John Carlson. There is no fanfare, no attention grabbing, no individualism, even when he’s scoring like crazy and conjuring up Bobby Orr-type of accomplishments. And when he plays, it’s the same thing. Carlson is keeping more offensive plays alive and perhaps pinching a little more, but he’s basically doing the same things he’s done his whole career, including last season when he put up a career-high 70 points.

“He’s been our horse for a while,” said teammate Tom Wilson. “Ever since I’ve been here, he’s been that steady rock back there. He’s not going to have flash where he goes end-to-end and toe dragging. He’s a guy who just gets it done. He has great offensive ability, but his game is steady, it’s predictable. He has the ability to make those plays where he just saucers it the whole ice, but he just doesn’t. He just does his thing.”

Doing his thing is what has helped Carlson play 700 games – 701 actually, going into the game against Toronto – and will almost certainly allow him to play more than 1,000 and add to his offensive totals. He does make subtle plays that go unnoticed unless you’re looking closely. “You guys really notice that sh--?” chuckles teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov. Carlson's CCM Jetspeed F12 stick is by far the longest stick on the Capitals roster, it’s long even for a guy who’s 6-foot-3. That stick has been rather hot lately, as his 17.9 shooting percentage would attest, but there really isn’t that much different about his game this year.

“I like to get in on the play and join the rush, but I’m not going to lead the rush like some guys can,” Carlson says. “It’s not about doing anything differently offensively than I’ve done in years past. It’s just about making good plays and guys making really good plays and a combination of both.”

The Capitals do have a more offensive bent to them this season, to be sure. They forecheck more aggressively than they have in the past and they’re more prone to keep plays alive in the offensive zone. And it’s showing, not only with Carlson’s point total of 21, which put him in a three-way tie for second in the NHL scoring race behind David Pastrnak going into Tuesday night’s games. Ovechkin is on pace for (yawn) another 50 goal year, scoring at a 57-goal pace, and the Capitals as a team are on pace for 315 goals, which would be their second-highest total of the post 2004-05 lockout era.

What has impressed Capitals coach Todd Reirden even more about Carlson’s game is that he’s accepted the undisputed mantle of leadership on the defense corps after the departures of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Reirden singled out Carlson’s work with 22-year-old Jonas Siegenthaler, who was taking a regular shift with Carlson early in the season. The Capitals gave him an ‘A’ this season and instead of weighing him down, it has brought out the best in him.

“He does his thing and he knows his foundation,” Reirden says. “He’s being a little more aggressive in the offensive zone when he does have some chances and staying down and keeping plays alive that he hasn’t done in the past. Other than that, he’s counted on to be out against the other team’s top players and play 25 minutes. It’s been a great start for him and he’s a big reason why we are where we are in the standings.”

Some of the Capitals are openly lobbying for Carlson to win a Norris Trophy, which would go nicely with his Stanley and Calder Cup championships and his World Junior Championship gold medal. But don’t expect Carlson himself to join the chorus. He prefers to allow his play to speak for itself.

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