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The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

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USA TODAY Sports

The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

The finalists for the Norris Trophy – awarded to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position – were unveiled on Sunday. Somehow, John Carlson was not among them.

This is the second consecutive year Carlson was a deserving candidate and the second year he will not even be among the top three.

The Norris Trophy is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association -- of which I am a member so I guess you can blame us -- but make no mistake, this is a snub in every sense of the word and a major oversight that Carlson cannot get the recognition he deserves.

Ballots will be made public after the awards are given out. Until then, we are not supposed to divulge exactly how we voted, but I will tell you that Carlson was in my top three, and he absolutely should have been a finalist this year.

If you had asked me prior to the 2017-18 season who the most important defenseman on the Caps was, I would have told you it was Matt Niskanen. I saw Carlson as an offensive-heavy player whose skills in his own zone were lacking. I had to eat those words later as Niskanen was injured in mid-October and missed the next month of the season. During that month, Carlson averaged 27:47 of ice-time per game, which led the entire league. He showed he could contribute offensively, defensively, on the power play and penalty kill. There was nothing he could not do.

Suddenly, the Caps’ top pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was replaced by Carlson and whoever he was paired with. That continued into this season.

But while Carlson has reshaped his image in Washington, his reputation as an offensive first player instead of an all-around defenseman persists, and it cost him.

There is no set standard every voter sticks to when it comes to evaluating players for the Norris. You can look at whatever stats you want whether it is Corsi, Fenwick, points, PDO, defensive zone starts, high-danger chances for -- the list goes on. Here’s why Carlson was in the top three of my ballot: Not only did he play exceptionally well, but the Capitals relied on him more in more situations than any other team relied on a single defenseman.

Carlson finished the season ranked eighth in the NHL in time on ice per game at 25:04. Burns finished just ahead of him with 25:06. Both Giordano (24:14) and Hedman (22:46) played less.

Carlson was among the top 40 defensemen in shorthanded time on ice per game with 2:35, something only Giordano (2:40) could boast among the other finalists. Carlson was also first among all defensemen in power play time on ice per game with 4:05, significantly more than Hedman (3:19), Giordano (3:19) or Burns (3:17).

There is no situation in which the Caps are not comfortable putting Carlson out on the ice and no situation in which he is not expected to play heavy minutes. He has taken a bigger role defensively as the team’s top shutdown pair of Orlov-Niskanen has had a down year. Despite the heavier defensive workload, Carlson still managed to finish in the top four in points among defensemen with 70, a career-high.

I am not here saying that Burns, Giordano or Hedman are not deserving of being finalists. In fact, Carlson did not finish first on my ballot. It seems crazy to me, however, that he did not finish in the top three this season or last. All three finalists had strong seasons, but Carlson’s season was just as good and he was more heavily relied upon. He is one of the top offensive blueliners, but that’s not all he is.

Until he manages to overcome that reputation, which persists through no fault of his own, he will continue to be on the outside of the Norris race looking in. And that’s a shame considering how good he has been.

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Alex Ovechkin 'not even thinking' about an extension as Capitals training camp begins

Alex Ovechkin 'not even thinking' about an extension as Capitals training camp begins

In a normal year, July 1 is the start of the NHL's league year. That is when free agency begins because it is when all expiring contracts have officially expired. It is also the day when players with one year remaining on their contracts can sign an extension.

As we all know, 2020 is not a normal year. Alex Ovechkin is on the final year of his contract, but with the 2019-20 season on pause, July 1 came and went with no fanfare and no talk about an extension for the best player in franchise history. Like the season itself, all such business was paused. After a new CBA was ratified by the league and the players, however, July 13 became the new day when players could sign extensions. That possibility seems to be nowhere on the mind of Ovechkin who has his sights set clearly on a second Stanely Cup.

Training camps began across the league on Monday as the NHL transitioned to Phase 3 of its return to play plan. After his first practice back, Ovechkin spoke with the media via Zoom and dismissed a question about a contract extension.

"Not even talking, not even thinking about it because right now we have lots of stuff to do," he said.

A flat salary cap for at least next year and likely the next two or three seasons makes it difficult to offer a long-term, big-money contract. For a player like Ovechkin, an exception will almost certainly be made, but that does not mean the process has not suddenly become much more complicated. Trying to fit a cap hit of somewhere around $9 or 10 million in addition to the several contracts already on the books is a daunting task for a veteran-heavy team. A flat cap means that long-term deals for older players won't take up a smaller percentage of the cap with every passing year.

COACHES ROUNDTABLE: HOW DO COACHES EARN THE TRUST OF SUPERSTARS?

Considering this, it's not surprising that this is an issue Ovechkin does not want to think about right now. While there was no guarantee Ovechkin would have re-signed on July 1 in a normal year, it seems unlikely the month of July would have passed by without the captain and future Hall-of-Famer putting pen to paper on a new contract. But that process is now much more complicated and Ovechkin just wants to focus on the task of winning a Cup.

"For us, for every team, every player wants to play for a Cup, right?" Ovechkin said. "We have that opportunity right now to go back and hope we going to win. Obviously, if you look at our roster, we have very good group of guys, experienced guys and talented guys. I'm looking forward to it."

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Coaches' Roundtable: How do coaches earn the trust of superstar players?

Coaches' Roundtable: How do coaches earn the trust of superstar players?

NBC Sports Washington brought together local coaches Ron Rivera (Washington football), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Scott Brooks (Wizards) and Mike Thibault (Mystics) to discuss the intricacies of their craft in a free-wheeling discussion hosted by Julie Donaldson. We present six days highlighting different themes of their conversation - experiences, stories and lessons shared from careers in coaching.  

One of the most important jobs of a head coach of a professional sports team is to build trust with players. This isn’t the pee-wees where coaches are teaching you how to play the game. A head coach must bring several professional men or women together and convince them that he can make that team successful. It’s about selling yourself to the team as much as it is leading it.
 
This is a task coaches like Scott Brooks and Todd Reirden know all too well.
 
Brooks took over as head coach of the Washington Wizards in 2016. Reirden, meanwhile, was promoted from associate coach to head coach after Barry Trotz resigned in the wake of the Capitals' Stanley Cup championship in 2018. Both coaches joined host Julie Donaldson along with Washington football head coach Ron Rivera and Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault in NBC Sports Washington’s Coaches' Roundtable.
 
Brooks inherited a team with two superstars in John Wall and Bradley Beal and immediately went about the task of teaching them how good the Wizards could be if those premier talents worked within the team’s structure. But that took work. 
 
“When you have superstar players, you have to form a relationship with them and have them have a good understanding that you need your teammates to help you even become even better of a superstar,” Brooks said. “I’ve always believed in good role players. If you can make them superstars in their roles, and I think the star players and the coaches can do that and allow that to happen, that makes the star players even better. It makes your team better. ... When they understand that your team has a chance to be special."
 
Brooks has now been the head coach in Washington for four seasons, leading the team to the playoffs twice. The Wizards did manage to make the cut for the resumption of the 2020 NBA season on July 30, so Brooks still has a chance to make it three out of four.
 
Reirden also inherited a talented roster with players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals were coming off a Stanley Cup championship when he took over, of course, and he had been with those same players since 2014 so his task was unique. He already had established relationships. 
 
“I thought the real challenge for me coming in and taking over the defending champion was to be able to relate to that and find different strategies,” Reirden said.
 
Reirden was with the Capitals as an assistant coach for four years under Trotz coaching the team’s defensemen. Now in his second season as head coach, Reirden has led the Caps to two Metropolitan Division titles and the team will be among the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference when the NHL’s season pause ends on Aug. 1. 
 
As a member of Trotz’s staff, Reirden knew the players already. Building the same level of trust with those players that Trotz had while convincing them that he, too, could lead them to the NHL mountaintop, however, remains was an unenviable task.

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“It was going to be a tough act to follow,” Reirden said.
 
But in many ways, that relationship with Trotz helped Reirden. In fact, much of Reirden’s preparation in taking over was learning from his own coaches.
 
“I think trust from players, it comes from honesty and as a player, I was fortunate enough to play for a coach by the name of Joel Quenneville, who is the second-winningest coach in the NHL history,” Reirden said of the current Florida Panthers coach who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups last decade. “What he taught me as a player, and I didn’t always like to hear it, but it was honest evaluation of my game. And some days were some pretty long drives back to my apartment. I may have even shed a tear after some of the things he said to me. But at least I knew where I stood, and it allowed me to focus on what I needed to do to improve.”
 
That is a philosophy Brooks shares with Reirden after a discussion he once had with legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden.
 
“I remember middle of my career, like in the middle of the 90s, I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so I had a meeting with Coach Wooden and it was the most surreal experience I've ever had,” Brooks said. “It was like a biblical figure. It’s like John Wooden. You've heard so much about fundamentals, so much about pyramids, so much about the first thing he taught his players, how to tie his shoe and put the shoes on so it wouldn't cause blisters. And I just remember one thing, one word that really just stood out, and he said 'honesty'. You want to be a good coach? Be honest with your players. And some of the tough conversations that I had with players or some of the tough conversations that coaches had with me and honesty was so important.”
 
Brooks added, “Sometimes you kind of want a little bit of a half-truth and the reason why you didn't play was because you couldn't guard anybody and you couldn't pass in positions. But you want honesty, and I think that helps gain your players’ trust.”
 
On the one hand, what is Brooks going to be able to teach Wall or Beal about the game of basketball that they don’t already know? What could Reirden possibly have to tell Ovechkin about scoring goals? They most want to be put in a position to succeed. 
 
As great as those players are, however, they can’t have that success without the team and both coaches agreed it takes that honesty to build up a player’s trust enough that they are willing to listen and play how they are coached. But that is a goal more realistic with buy-in from the top players. If they believe, their teammates will follow, too. 
 
“You cannot fake genuineness to the players and passion and the desire,” Reirden said. “They know whether you're trying to make them better, trying to make our team better. They know whether you're all in or not. They see right through you and I think that it's best to wear your passion on your sleeve and show up with a great game plan that involves everybody, involves your full team. Because none of us are winning without having a team in our sport.”

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