SAN JOSE – John Carlson’s picture went up on the big scoreboard at SAP Center and the crowd merely murmured.
There were no boos, no curses, not even a light applause for one of the NHL’s best defensemen when he was announced at the All-Star game skills competition on Friday night. No, there weren’t many Caps fans in attendance in the Bay Area over 3,000 miles away from Washington. But you’d think Carlson would generate a little reaction.
You could hardly blame the crowd. Carlson has been a known commodity around the NHL for more than a decade dating back to his days as gold-medal goal-scoring hero for Team USA as a teenager at the prestigious World Juniors tournament. But he’s comically overshadowed on his own team. Alex Ovechkin takes up almost all the oxygen in a room where even stars like T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby, a fellow 2019 All-Star, sometimes get lost.
A chill, confident, do-it-all defenseman can fade into the background among that group. Backstrom should be a future Hall-of-Famer, Holtby plays the most important position, Kuznetsov exudes charm and brilliance and Oshie has his own status as an American hero thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympics.
John Carlson doesn’t really care. He’ll just go right on being the glue that holds together the defending Stanley Cup champs. On Saturday, Carlson took to the ice as an NHL All-Star for the first time in his 10-year career. He skated with Sidney Crosby and against Steven Stamkos and John Tavares and Auston Matthews. He was, as always, in front of Holtby and defending Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov and Jack Eichel. Connor McDavid was there. Ovechkin was not after declining to participate this time. Carlson, at long last, was one of them.
“A different experience than I’m used to,” Carlson said. “But it’s cool to see some old friends, share it with a good friend.”
Maybe Ovechkin’s absence gave Carlson room for some deserved exposure. Then again a four-team tournament where each “game” is three-on-three with almost all of the planet’s best offensive players ripping pucks isn’t exactly the format for a defenseman to show off. Carlson did that on Friday night, instead, when he won the hardest shot event at the NHL skills competition. His 102.8 miles per hour shot was better than even Ovechkin did when he won it in 2018.
But if casual fans overlook Carlson, players and coaches around the league know exactly what he does for the Capitals. He leads Washington in time on ice per game (25 minutes, 20 seconds), which is sixth most in the NHL. He runs an elite power play featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Oshie. He skates 2:40 per game on the penalty kill. There is no situation he doesn’t play. Tavares knows. He and Carlson played their final year of junior together in 2008-09 for the London Knights under former Capitals coach and player Dale Hunter.
“[Carlson] was so good that they put him as a forward on the power play,” Tavares said. “That just speaks to his ability offensively. And the minutes he was playing – 30-plus minutes a night. His all-around game and being able to handle that workload and still be as productive as he was speaks volumes.”
Carlson led all NHL defensemen with a career-high 68 points (15 goals, 53 assists) last season. With 32 games left he has a chance to break that mark at age 29. He is fourth in points (47) and assists (39). Only Florida’s Keith Yandle has more power-play points than Carlson’s 20. He is only 59th in shot differential percentage when he’s on the ice (50.56). But Washington isn’t a strong shot differential team.
That’s in part strategy given the Caps have so many elite forwards. They hunt quality shots, not quantity. Still, only Michal Kempny, Carlson’s primary defense partner, is above 50 percent (50.25) among the seven Washington defensemen who have appeared in 22 games or more.
“You look at a guy like John Carlson, you don’t judge him based off zero All Star appearances,” said Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler, a Team USA teammate at the 2016 World Cup. “You know he’s one of the top defensemen in the league every single year. He does what he does maybe better than anyone else, runs that power play maybe better than anybody else could. Those are the things players look at.”
Carlson’s path was unconventional. He was born in Massachusetts and grew up playing hockey in New Jersey. That’s where fellow 2019 All-Star Kyle Palmieri, a forward with the New Jersey Devils, first encountered Carlson on the travel circuit. A year younger, Palmieri eventually became Carlson’s teammate on the legendary Team USA squad at the 2010 World Juniors. Carlson scored a power-play goal early in the championship game and his game-winning goal in overtime capped a 6-5 classic. It was only the second time the United States won gold at the event since it began in 1977.
“It’s crazy to think about. Playing against him in youth hockey in Jersey all the way up to World Juniors and obviously him scoring that goal in the gold-medal game,” Palmieri said. “He’s a guy that was a couple of levels older than me coming up through New Jersey youth hockey, but definitely one of the guys that helped pave the way to get us on to the next level.”
Before that memorable experience, Carlson spent a full year at age 16-17 with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League. The Capitals were intrigued enough to trade up into the first round to take him at No. 27 overall in the 2008 NHL Draft. It didn’t take long to see they’d swindled their rivals.
Carlson quickly passed up a college scholarship he’d previously accepted to the University of Massachusetts to play for Hunter – and with Tavares – in London. He was 18 and playing on a glaring stage alongside one of Canada’s generational talents. NHL teams were openly tanking at the time to get Tavares, a prodigy who was chosen No. 1 overall by the New York Islanders in the following draft.
In 59 games with London that year, under the notoriously hard Hunter, scouts noticed Carlson, who had 76 points (16 goals, 60 assists) in 59 games, and the ones who’d passed on him the year before winced. After London’s season ended, Carlson played in 16 Calder Cup playoff games with the Hershey Bears. He was 19.
By Nov. 20, 2009 he’d made his NHL debut, stuck for good in March of the Caps’ brilliant 2009-2010 season and played heavy minutes in all seven Stanley Cup playoff games that spring against the Montreal Canadiens.
Now he is the fourth-longest tenured D.C. athlete, behind only Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Ovechkin and Backstrom and just ahead of Redskins Trent Williams and Ryan Kerrigan and Holtby. Now, like all of them, he is an All Star, too.
“It’s about time because John’s been so good for us,” Holtby said. “It’s so hard when you have Ovi and Nick and Kuzy. There’s just not a lot of room. But it’s great he’s finally getting here because he’s been an All Star. He’s been at an All-Star level for a long time.”
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