Earlier this season, John Carlson etched his name into the statistical record book alongside a pair of all-time greats. That moment came when the Washington Capitals blueliner scored his 18th point in his 10th game of the season, making him the third defenseman in NHL history to score as many points through as many games, an accomplishment he shares with Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey. And after his brush with statistical greatness earlier this season, Carlson went out and had another Tuesday evening.
Entering an outing against the San Jose Sharks, Carlson had maintained his offensive tear, pushing his point total to 37 through the first 28 games of the season. And in doing so, he set the stage to match a mark that hadn’t been equalled in nearly three decades. You see, during the 1990-91 season, Al MacInnis rocketed his way to 40 points in 29 games, becoming the fourth defenseman in NHL history, alongside Orr, Coffey and Denis Potvin, to manage the feat in as many or fewer games. However, in order for Carlson to join the Hall-of-Fame cohort of 40-in-29 defenders, he would need to produce his sixth three-point outing of the season. Undoubtedly, a tall task.
Now, by simple virtue of the fact this is being brought up at all, you can probably go ahead and assume what happened next: Carlson got his three points. He did so in pretty spectacular fashion, too. First, he picked up the primary assist on Garnet Hathaway’s mid-first frame game-tying goal. Fifty-three seconds later, Carlson picked up the primary helper on Jakub Vrana’s goal that put the Capitals ahead. And little more than two minutes after that, Carlson, left wide-open at the point, stepped into a blast that clanked iron and found twine. With three points in three minutes – all right, all right, three minutes and one second, to be exact – Carlson became the first defenseman in 29 years to score 40 points in 29 games.
Incredibly, not since beginning his offensive-season-for-the-ages has Carlson really slowed down. After he scored his 18th point, it was said around these parts that there was a snowball’s chance in you-know-where he could maintain a similar scoring pace. And technically, that’s true. He’s no longer in line for a 148-point season. But Carlson’s offensive output is still absolutely bonkers. He's currently on pace to score 113 points this season, which would be the single-highest point total by any defenseman since Coffey’s 113-point season in 1988-89. It’s not like Carlson's doing that with a dozen games in the books, either. The Capitals are through more than one-third of their campaign.
Thanks to his eye-popping point total, Carlson is the prohibitive favorite to win the Norris Trophy at this point in the season. If you were to poll voters today, we’re not entirely sure that Carlson wouldn’t clean-sweep the thing, either. But given his production through the first third of the season, not to mention 12-point lead on the next-highest scoring defenseman, near league-high ice time average and sound-though-not-stunning underlying numbers, we ask: is there any way Carlson doesn’t win the award?
If he continues to put up points at an absurd rate, the answer is likely to be a resounding, “No.” That he’s already at 40 points means he has an honest-to-goodness chance to become the first defenseman in the post-lockout era to crack the 90-point plateau. Heck, if he were to score at a rate commensurate with his scoring rate over his past 191 games, which encompasses all of 2017-18 and 2018-19 and the 29 games he’s played this season, Carlson stands to add another 49 points over the final 53 games of the season. That would bring him a hair shy of the 90-point plateau. Chances are if he manages to hit that mark, he’ll answer our early-season query – will this be the season he scores his way to the Norris? – in the affirmative.
There are, of course, innumerable mitigating factors, but there are some that loom larger than others.
The first is a drop off in scoring pace, which could potentially allow another defender to close the gap and possibly even overtake Carlson. It seems unlikely at this point, to be sure, but Carolina Hurricanes rearguard Dougie Hamilton and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar are within 15 points of Carlson. And if either closes the gap and makes the margin somewhat negligible, it will weaken Carlson’s case. Maybe not by all that much, mind you, but the larger the gap between he and the rest of the blueliners, the better his chances that he can ride his point total to the hardware.
It might be important that Carlson has a sizeable lead on the next-best scorer, too. While his point totals are impressive, a number of his counterparts throughout the league have decidedly better underlying numbers, something that very well could – and very well should – be taken into account given the award is about more than scoring. Among the 110 defensemen who’ve skated at least 400 minutes at five-a-side this season, Carlson ranks 62nd in Corsi percentage, 52nd in shots percentage and 47th in expected goals for percentage. Compare that to, say, Hamilton. He ranks third in Corsi percentage, fourth in shots percentage and 10th in expected goals for percentage while also maintaining a 62.2 goals for percentage that is slightly higher than Carlson’s sixth-best 62.0 percent rate. From an overall-performance standpoint, it’s difficult not to include Hamilton in the conversation, so you can see why the scoring lead will be of increased importance.
It’s not as though we haven’t seen Carlson’s lack of top-tier underlying numbers hamstring him before in awards voting, either. He led all defensemen in scoring with 68 points in 2017-18, but finished fifth in voting. Last season, despite a 70-point output, the fourth-most among blueliners, he finished fourth in voting and behind Victor Hedman, whom Carlson outscored by a 16-point margin. (Winner Mark Giordano had only four points more than Carlson’s, but his all-around play secured him all but six first-place votes.) As we’ve outlined previously, too, others have led all defensemen in scoring by a not-insignificant margin only to fail to hoist the trophy. Often, that comes down to own-zone acumen, be it voters' perception of that ability or actual, tangible results. If Carlson is overshadowed or there’s a feeling others have been more "complete" defensemen, it will put his pursuit of the Norris in jeopardy.
But the most obvious way in which Carlson fails to win the award – and we hesitate to put this evil out into the world – is if Carlson falls injured. The good news? Carlson hasn’t battled the injury bug all that often throughout his career. Only once since his rookie season has he missed upwards of 10 games in a single season and he’s skated in all but a dozen regular season games in the past three campaigns. The bad? Past health doesn’t ensure future health. Missing a significant period due to injury would pose quite possibly the greatest hinderance to Carlson’s Norris campaign.
Assuming he stays healthy, though, and even assuming his scoring rate dips to match the pace he’s mustered over the past two-plus season, Carlson is in an excellent position to put his name alongside yet another trio of Hall of Famers. This time, though, it will be Rod Langway, Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios, as Carlson can become the fourth American defensemen in NHL history to win the Norris as the league’s top defenseman.
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