If you look at the top of the NHL points leaderboard, you'll see a lot of names that you expect.
Connor McDavid. Sidney Crosby. Nathan MacKinnon. Jack Eichel. Alex Ovechkin. Leon Draisatil. Brad Marchand. David Pastrnak. Elias Pettersson.
These guys make up for 9 of the top 10 in points, but the 10th name, number 3 on the list, and tied with Connor McDavid, may come as a bit of a surprise.
The 6'3" 216lbs right-shot defenceman from Massachusettes has been an offensive dynamo to start the season, accumulating 23 points in just 14 games for the Washington Capitals.
While we're on the topic of points, it is important to note that Al Macinnis is the all-time leader for most points by a defenceman in October, with 25. One more game in the month of October and it's safe to assume Carlson had a chance at tying the record.
But back to John Carlson himself, people don't seem to be giving him the credit he deserves despite his flaming hot start. Everywhere you look, people are saying "Well anyone could set up Ovechkin on the powerplay" or "All he does is give to Backstrom to give to Ovechkin."
Let me stop you right there.
Right now, John Carlson is the offensive catalyst for the Capitals. Yes, Ovechkin is their ring leader, he scores all the goals, he is the flashy star. But we can't ignore how good Carlson has been either.
The History of John Carlson
Looking back to the early part of his career, should we really be surprised by the defenceman that Carlson has blossomed into?
A 1st Round Pick out of the USHL by Washington in 2008, Carlson signed with the London Knights of the OHL (shocker) and played a year of junior following his draft year. He registered 76 points in 59 games on a very good Knights team featuring John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, and Michael Del Zotto among others.
The next year, Carlson got his first sniff of the NHL, playing 22 games for the Caps scoring 6 points, before going to Hershey in the AHL where he amassed 39 points in 48 games.
I would be remiss to ignore the fact that in the middle of this year Carlson scored the overtime winner in the World Juniors against Team Canada . . . something a lot of us probably still haven't forgotten.
Now in his 11th NHL season, Carlson has long been a steady presence on the blue-line, and was good for at least 35 points a year majority of his career. Also receiving nods from the USA Hockey program, playing in the 2014 Olympics and the 2016 World Cup.
2014-2015 was a bit of a revelation as he recorded 55 points in 82 or .67 points per game, showing flashes of his offensive prowess. 2015-2016 he carried on his success with .70 points per game despite only playing 56 games.
2016-2017 he regressed a bit to .51 points per game, but the next year was when he really popped off.
2017-2018 he took off with .83 points per game, and a Stanley Cup win on the side. His 68 points was a career best, he registered 237 shots on goal, by far a career high, and played a prominent matchup role on the Caps defence throughout the playoffs. Also registering 20 points in his 24 playoff games. Carlson finished 5th in Norris voting to put the cherry on top.
Last year he continued his success with 70 points in 80 games, finished 4th in the Norris race.
Back to The Present
Carlson currently sits with 7 goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 14 games, good for 1.64 points per game. Which puts him 9 points ahead of the 2nd highest scoring d-man, Morgan Rielly.
Allow me to dig in more deeply though, to illustrate just how great he's been.
The Washington Capitals have scored 53 goals this season. John Carlson has been on the ice for 30 of them. In other words, Carlson has been on the ice for over 55% of his teams goals scored. That's ridiculous.
Of the 30 goals they've scored while he's on the ice, he has points on 23 of them. That means over 75% over goals scored while he's on the ice go through him at some point.
16 of these 23 are primary points, meaning he either scored or was the guy who passed to the scorer. 16 primary points already this year has him leading defenceman in this category by a large margin.
On top of this, it would be easy to look at his offensive numbers and say he's a 1 way player. However, what people don't realize, is that Carlson has a 54.8 dZS% meaning well over half of the time he starts his shifts in his own end. In comparison, offence-first d-men like Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Rasmus Dahlin have a 43.1 dZS%, a 43.5 dZS%, and a 42.3 dZS% respectively, meaning they get sheltered minutes with most of their starts coming in their opponent's end.
What sticks out to me while watching him though, despite being a strong skater, he doesn't lead the rush like some modern d-men, but rather makes the smart passes, hangs on to the puck til someone opens up, and then follows the play up wisely.
He can throw stretch passes, and often times the off side winger will fly the zone knowing that somehow Carlson will land a pass on his tape.
The Images to Back It Up
To break down some of what makes him so good, let's look at a few freeze-frames from recent Capitals games.
A 2-1 game against Washington, late in the game, Carlson swings back to his own zone to pick up a loose puck and notices both teams making changes.
Rather than hanging on to the puck while his defence partner changes and wait for the centre to swing low to breakout, as most teams would do, Carlson throws a quick stretch pass up to Oshie, and the Capitals can attack the zone depsite being outnumbered 5 on 2 in the Hawks zone. As well, notice how far Carlson is behind the play, yet he still joins the attack eventually and makes a play.
As the play continues, Carlson gets a loose puck on the wall, has a defender just behind him trying to get his stick in the lane, yet is able to throw a perfect cross-ice pass to Ovechkin. More impressively, if you look closely at his head, he never looks at Ovechkin, but rather keeps his eyes on the net, keeping Crawford alert with 2 bodies screening out front. Yes, Ovechkin scores on this through the seam one-timer, as he does.
On a 5 on 3 powerplay against Toronto, the Caps win the draw back to Ovechkin on the left point. Ovechkin instantly throws it to Carlson in the middle, and this is what he sees the second he gets the puck (its just now on his stick).
Carlson starts to carry the puck across to the right side, allowing Kuznetsov to set up in front, as well as drawing Marner over to try and open up a pass lane to Ovechkin.
As the play develops, Carlson hangs on to the puck, and lets look at the options he has here. Backstrom has drawn Rielly up towards the puck, causing him to screen Andersen. Marner has to come over as Carlson pump faked a slapshot for a few seconds prior to this freeze-frame, opening up Ovechkin. Kuznetsov has now fully opened up in the slot and is available for a high slot tip off a slap pass. Instead, Carlson fires a slapshot and scores far side top corner on a beautiful shot. (It also was his 2nd slapshot goal of the game, both to the exact same corner).
Lastly, against the Leafs a few weeks back, Carlson had a beautiful play to set up Vrana for the one-timer (fun fact: Carlson leads the league in assists on one-timers, thanks Ovechkin). He gets the puck across the line and slows up and pivots to spread out the defence. The leafs right side d-man is forced to come up towards Carlson as he has the puck, and Tavares is forced to try and take away the trailer and the far side winger, as the Leafs are out numbered. Most importantly take note of how Tavares' stick is taking away the seam pass, and Carlson is starting to turn his head back to Eller the trailer.
With Tavares reading Carlson's eyes looking back to Eller, Tavares changes his stick positioning to take away the passing lane that Carlson is looking at. Thus opening up the seam pass to Vrana on the far side, and you can see Carlson start to make the pass across the ice.
Here's a zoomed in freeze-frame, better illustrating the head fake by Carlson. You can see Tavares starting to move his stick to his left side to cover the lane to Eller, which is where Carlson's head and upper body is still facing. However, if you look at Carlson's stick, it is facing over to Vrana through the seam.
Last image, shows the perfect pass in Vrana's wheelhouse for the one-timer goal. Notice how small the gap between the two Leafs defender's are. Eller is well covered by Tavares, and most of the middle is taken away, but Carlson's head fake was good enough to make this perfect pass across.
Overall, John Carlson is an elite elite elite defenceman in this league. I'm not sure he can continue this scoring pace, but he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down in the first month. Don't be surprised if he is a top 3 Norris vote by the end of the season.
*Stats from Hockey Reference, Money Puck, Corsica Hockey*
*Freeze Frames from Sportsnet, NHL.com*