The numbers are getting a little silly.
Capitals defenseman John Carlson’s three-point night against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday gave him 40 points on the season. He scored a goal. He had two assists. Then he followed up with two more goals against the Los Angeles Kings late Wednesday night to push that mark to 42. Through just 30 games, he is on pace to shatter the franchise record for points by a defenseman in a single season.
That record currently belongs to Larry Murphy, a Hockey Hall-of-Famer who played six years with the Caps in the 1980s and was part of four Stanley Cup teams in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Murphy had 81 points in 1986-87 (23 goals, 58 assists). Carlson is on pace for 115 right now. He is sixth in the NHL in points with 11 goals and 31 assists. A defenseman is somehow right there with the top offensive forwards in the game (Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Boston’s Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon).
No blueliner is even close to Carlson. Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton has 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists). Take away all 12 of Carlson’s power-play points and he’s still ahead. At this point Carlson’s competition isn’t this year’s crop of NHL defensemen. It’s all of them. Ever.
Here’s the list of defensemen who have reached 40 points or more in the first 30 games of a season: Bobby Orr. Dennis Potvin. Paul Coffey. Al MacInnis. Four Hall of Famers, including arguably the greatest player of all time in Orr, who accomplished that six times.
Carlson’s agent actually works for the Wasserman/Orr hockey group so he knows the Boston Bruins legend well. Fair to say the Capitals are getting their money’s worth from the eight-year, $64 million deal Carlson signed after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.
The numbers and names are bananas. But this is a different era than the one that Orr and later Potvin, Coffey and MacInnis played in. Carlson isn’t touching their best seasons.
Orr holds the record for defensemen with 139 points in his iconic 1970-71 season. Coffey topped 100 points five times with the legendary Oilers teams of the 1980s. Potvin did it once in 1979-80 with the New York Islanders. MacInnis did it once with the Calgary Flames in 1989-90.
In fact, no NHL defenseman has topped 100 points since Brian Leetch with the New York Rangers in 1991-92. No one has reached even 90 points since Ray Bourque in 1993-94 for the Bruins. It’s a different game.
But let’s look at the past 25 years dating to 1994-95. That’s an entire generation of hockey players. In that span only five defensemen have topped 80 points. Hall of Famers Leetch, Bourque and Niklas Lidstrom and two active players: Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Carlson saw both Tuesday night in the game against San Jose. His performance, a goal and two assists, must have seemed familiar to them.
Burns won the Norris Trophy in 2017 with the Sharks, Karlsson with Ottawa in 2012 and 2015. Neither, however, won it in their best offensive seasons. Burns had 83 points last year. Karlsson had 82 points in 2015-16. Remember, Mike Green had insane numbers in 2008-09 for the Capitals. He scored 31 goals in 68 games, the second-most by any defenseman in the past 30 years. All three of them finished second in the Norris voting those seasons. Offensive production is no guarantee.
Carlson did finish fourth in the Norris Trophy voting last year with a career-high 70 points. Calgary’s Mark Giordano won it because he was a dominant two-way player who posted big numbers (74 points) while playing in all situations against the best competition.
Carlson qualifies there, though, as an all-around player in his own right. He was 23rdin short-handed time on ice last season (206:13) among defensemen just one spot behind Giordano. He led the league in power-play time on ice (326:25). Carlson was a positive possession player at 51.88% shots-for at even strength.
That wasn’t quite as good as the very best in the league. Giordano, for instance, was 55.96%, Burns was 55.45%. But Carlson was better than Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman (50.78%), who finished one spot ahead of him in third. He convince Pro Hockey Writers Association voters he’s at that level, which should help him this time around.
Carlson is at 50.09% shots-for this season and probably needs to boost that number a bit to win the Norris – unless, of course, his offensive production continues to be off the charts. Then it probably doesn’t matter. At some point that overrides everything else.
Carlson has 10 more assists than any other defenseman (31) and is fifth in shots (84). His 11 goals jumped Hamilton’s 10 last night. His shooting percentage is a little high at 13.1% percent. But he’s surrounded by top talent so that assist rate shouldn’t drop too much. He’s not relying on empty calories with more primary assists (19) than Hamilton has total (18).
There are still 52 games left to go. No one is handing Carlson anything yet. He has to stay healthy. He probably can’t win a Norris without 80-plus points and even then Burns, Karlsson and Green are proof that’s no guarantee. It might take 90, which hasn’t been done in 26 seasons since Bourque. But it’s impossible to imagine him hitting that mark and NOT winning.
But either way, Norris or not, this season has a special feel to it. Carlson is more than halfway to Murphy’s franchise points record. He is almost halfway to Scott Stevens’ franchise assists record (61). He is 29 for another month, in his hockey prime, and everything is going right for the Capitals and for him. For now, that’s all that matters.
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