As talented as Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson is, it’s still pretty mind-blowing that he’s leading all NHL scorers – not just fellow blueliners – with 20 points in 11 games.
It’s a pretty comfortable lead, too, at least considering how early we still are in the 2019-20 season. David Pastrnak and Connor McDavid are tied for second place with 17 points, making Carlson’s five goals and 15 assists that much more impressive.
This post aims to dig a little deeper on this red-hot start.
Before we delve into the esoteric, let’s take a moment to ruminate on just how special this start really is. A factoid like this helps it sink in a bit:
[Tuesday’s Buzzer has a lot of other Carlson factoids.]
Luck and skill
Carlson’s five goals come on 23 shots on goal, which translates to a 21.7 shooting percentage. That would be too high of a shooting percentage for most non-Mario Lemieux forwards to maintain, let alone a defenseman. Carlson’s career shooting percentage is 6.1, although he’s been higher the past two seasons (7 percent in 2018-19, and 6.3 in 2017-18).
Even Carlson was laughing at some of his luck lately, including after an empty-netter, one of his two goals from Tuesday’s 5-3 Caps win against the Flames:
With 15 of his 20 points being assists, his very high 18.5 on-ice shooting percentage is just as relevant. Carlson’s career average is 10.1, so you’d expect fewer goals to come from Carlson’s passes going forward.
Still, one cannot ignore that Carlson’s shown plenty of scoring ability over the years. Carlson scored 15 goals and 68 points in 2017-18 and 13 goals and 70 points in 2018-19, so he’s obviously been able to fill up the scoresheet as his role has become more and more prominent with Washington. He finished just short of being a Norris Trophy finalist in 2018-19, as he finished fourth in voting.
If healthy, Carlson seems like a strong candidate to win his first Norris if he plays the rest of the season at “only” a 70-ish point pace. That’s especially true since he’s improved as an all-around player with better possession stats since 2017-18.
So, yeah, Carlson will cool down … but there are elements of his game, and the system around him, that could help him be a dangerous defensive scorer for an extended period of time.
For one thing, he’s not afraid to shoot. Carlson’s 445 SOG in 173 games since 2017-18 ranks eighth among NHL defensemen.
Not only might that result in goals, but also the sort of rebounds and chaos that can help generate assists. As J.J. Regan notes for NBC Sports Washington, the Capitals have been more focused on shot volume from defensemen under Todd Reirden, and it only makes sense that such a mentality would benefit a gifted scorer like Carlson.
“We’re switching more to shooting the puck whenever you have a chance or a lane,” Jonas Siegenthaler said. “A couple years ago, you were always looking for the next play or a green shot.”
Chalk it up to being fresher earlier in the season, the Capitals typically being comfortably placed atop the standings late in seasons, or some combination of such factors, but either way, Carlson’s career split stats indicate that he’s generally been a strong starter.
His best months tend to be in October, November, and December. If you believe that “recency bias” creeps into awards voting, than it’s something to think about for Carlson’s Norris push if he once again winds down a bit toward the end of the season.
Carlson’s 20 points stand as a considerable lead among NHL defensemen, as Nashville’s Ryan Ellis is a distant second with 12. For all we know, Carlson might break the Capitals’ single-season points record for a defenseman, which Larry Murphy set with 81 in 1986-87.
Even if Carlson slows down close to that 70-point range (or gets injured), it’s been really impressive to watch, to the point that sometimes you watch his numbers go up and start laughing to yourself just like Carlson after his empty-net goal.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.