By Sheng Peng
It’s easy to look at John Carlson and be blinded by the offense.
Carlson, after all, is on pace to become the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to score 100 points.
But Carlson’s defensive work also merits praise.
Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden was eager to speak on this: “His ability to defend, especially this year, is going a little bit unnoticed just because of the crazy offensive numbers.”
It’s this all-around game that makes Carlson a deserving front-runner for the Norris Trophy.
For Reirden and Carlson, it’s been a long journey to the top.
Reirden joined Barry Trotz’s staff to coach Washington’s defense in 2014-15, Carlson’s fifth season.
“When I met him six years ago, we had a plan of how he could become one of the league’s best,” Reirden offered. “It was a process of steps we went through. The first one was to be able to play the other team’s top players, do it defensively.”
Carlson’s current usage reflects this development. His 24:56 Average Time on Ice ranks eighth among NHL defensemen; he’s also a short-handed regular, playing 1:48 per game on the kill. He and defensive partner Michal Kempny are often charged with the toughest defensive match-ups.
So what does Carlson do well defensively?
Per Sportlogiq data, Carlson leads NHL defensemen in blocked passes with 224. This is for all situations. He’s second in blocked passes in the defensive zone with 126.
Blocking a pass isn’t just a physical thing. It’s not just about putting your stick or body out there — it’s often about anticipating the pass before it’s made.
Teammate Nic Dowd said of Carlson, “He does a great job positionally, it always seems like he’s in the right spot at the right time.”
This is no accident.
“His hockey sense is really at a high level,” Reirden indicated. “His knowledge of where the puck is going to go sometimes before it goes there helps him a lot.”
Here’s an example, from November 16th at Boston:
You can see Carlson (74) in the middle of the ice, like a hawk, eyeing Joakim Nordstrom (20) coming up the right wall. As he often does, Carlson makes it look easy, picking off the Nordstrom pass to Chris Wagner (14).
Just as importantly, after Carlson steals the puck, he doesn’t just get rid of it. Carlson draws a couple Bruins toward him before handing the puck off to Jakub Vrana (13), who regains the zone. Then Carlson completes the circle, coming back down the slot for a quality chance.
“He has a really good stick,” Kempny said.
Carlson ranks 20th among all blueliners with 59 stick checks.
Carlson’s 6-foot-3 frame accentuates the impact of his defensive stick.
Reirden agreed: “He’s able to take away a lot of time and space with the size he’s at.”
Here are a couple examples against the Florida Panthers on November 27th:
Carlson uses superior anticipation and a strong stick to knock the puck away from Brian Boyle (9).
Carlson bodies up no less than Aleksander Barkov (16), ultimately winning the 50-50 with his stick.
Here’s an additional example from December 3rd at San Jose:
Carlson’s long stick forces Patrick Marleau (12) to pass to Timo Meier (28). In a stride, Carlson is on top of Meier, forcing a puck bobble.
Carlson caps off this sequence with a breakout pass to T.J. Oshie (77) in the face of intense forechecking pressure from Meier.
This is a theme that we’ll come back to, Carlson’s expertise with turning good defense into immediate offense.
You might forgive Carlson if he were a turnover machine, considering how much he handles the puck.
But Carlson has nothing to apologize for — ranking 8th among defensemen in Turnover Rate at 11.5 percent. This measures how often he turns the puck over relative to puck touches in all situations.
Carlson’s ability to complete both the safe play under duress and the spectacular pass is striking. It’s a rare combination of efficiency and daring.
Here’s an example of Carlson making the easy play when it isn’t easy:
David Krecji (46) takes Carlson’s right, Brad Marchand (63) goes left. This is a recipe for a turnover, but instead, Carlson rims it through Krecji, to the safety valve along the wall.
Here’s an example of Carlson’s more dazzling capabilities from October 14th against the Colorado Avalanche:
Between Mikko Rantanen (96) and Nathan Mackinnon’s (29) sticks, Carlson lays a perfect, in-stride pass through the neutral zone to Alex Ovechkin (8).
If you believe the best defense is a good offense, Carlson is your man.
Dowd observed that even when Carlson is excelling on defense, he’s thinking ahead to offense.
“In his mindset, he’s already onto the third play,” Dowd said. “He knows he’s reversing it, now he’s worried about getting up the ice before the forechecker contacts him.”
Carlson credited Reirden with helping him “recognize stuff a little bit quicker…reading the play a little bit more before I get the puck versus when I get the puck.”
This is an example of Carlson’s approach and ability to make the not-so-easy play look easy.
Carlson knows that Oshie at center ice, surrounded by three Bruins, will be in trouble, so he stays close, in good defensive and offensive position. The puck pops to him, and he knifes through Nordstrom and Sean Kuraly (52) to hit Nicklas Backstrom (19) with the pass.
Carlson then activates up the offensive zone center lane, stick ready for the return pass.
Indeed, Carlson, at his heart, is an offense-first defenseman. But there’s nothing wrong with that — he’s also an impact player defensively, an impact player in all three zones.
Kempny declared, “He’s the best defenseman in the league right now.”
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)