Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and John Carlson. That’s it. That’s the complete list of defensemen who’ve managed 18 points through the first 10 games of their team’s campaign in NHL history, a trio of which Carlson managed to join when he set the table for an Alex Ovechkin blast in the Capitals’ Sunday outing against the Chicago Blackhawks. And the Washington rearguard might not be done entering the record books this month.
According to the NHL, Carlson’s joining of Orr and Coffey in that 18-points-in-10-games club, a mark last achieved by Coffey more than 30 years ago, has set the stage for the Capitals blueliner to earn admission into another group. Only three other defensemen in NHL history have scored 20 points through the month of October. Coffey did it twice, in 1981 and again in 1988, and he was later joined by Al MacInnis and Brian Leetch, who both accomplished the feat in 1990. And while there are no guarantees, Carlson seems like he could very well join the 20-points-in-October brotherhood. He needs to muster only two more points in the Capitals' four remaining games before the calendar flips to November.
To see Carlson scoring at this rate is somewhat remarkable, to be sure, but it’s not altogether surprising. Would anyone have expected him to be leading the league with 18 points as we inch closer to the end of the third full week of the campaign? Absolutely not, but there are few defensemen who have scored quite like Carlson over the past three seasons. Even those considered top-tier producers such as John Klingberg, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman are anywhere from 40- to 30-plus points back of Carlson, who has 156 points since the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign and trails only Brent Burns (158 points) in scoring by a defenseman over that span.
But as he scored his way to tying the 10-game record and potentially towards the all-time October mark – he would need 26 points to dethrone MacInnis and his 25-point performance – one can’t help but wonder if Carlson's fast start and his overall offensive production can make this the campaign that he finally finds himself in Vegas for the NHL Awards and potentially on stage accepting the Norris Trophy come season’s end.
Before we get into Carlson's potential case, it's worth getting one thing out of the way: he isn’t going to continue to score at this rate. He’s not going to finish the season with more points than Connor McDavid, Orr’s 139-point blueliner record is safe and don’t expect Carlson to even exceed the 100-point plateau. Matter of fact, if he does, cancel the Norris portion of the award show and just present the Norris to him after Game 82.
So, realistically, what we might be able to expect Carlson to produce? Let's assume he scores at a rate similar to his past two seasons over the remainder of the current campaign, which is to say somewhere in the neighborhood of .86 points per game across the final 72 contests. If he does that, Carlson will still have put together one heck of a season, registering another 62 points, likely enough to lead all defensemen in scoring as he will become the fourth defenseman to post 80 points in a single season in the post-lockout era.
Unfortunately, though, leading all defenseman and eclipsing 80 points might not be enough to cement him as the Norris winner. Recent history tells us that much, and Carlson has come to understand as much first-hand.
Over the past two seasons, Carlson has been in the Norris conversation, without a doubt. But despite playing in an era where offensive success has translated to Norris hardware for the likes of Karlsson, P.K. Subban and Brent Burns, Carlson has yet to add the award to his trophy case. Last season, in a campaign that saw him earn an end-of-season all-star nod for the first time in his career, Carlson finished fourth in Norris voting. That, too, came on the heels of Carlson’s fifth-place finish during the 2017-18 campaign, in which he led all defensemen with 68 points. That made him the third defenseman in the 14 post-lockout era campaigns to lead all blueliners in scoring yet fail to finish among the top-three Norris vote-getters. And the seasons produced by those two other blueliners, especially the most recent, might be indicative of the uphill battle Carlson faces.
In 2010-11, Lubomir Visnovsky led all blueliners with 68 points, six more than the next-closest rearguard, eventual Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom. But Visnovsky also finished 20 points clear of second-place Shea Weber and 24 points up on third-place Zdeno Chara. That said, Visnovsky’s fourth-place finish is hardly galling given he had never previously been a true-blue Norris contender. We can overlook that one. The same can’t be said for Erik Karlsson’s seventh-place finish in 2013-14, however, which remains among the most puzzling in recent memory. Already a one-time winner, having captured the award in 2010-11, Karlsson led the league with 74 points, putting him 13 points ahead of Norris winner Duncan Keith, 34 points ahead of second-place Chara and 28 points clear of third-place Weber. Karlsson didn’t receive so much as a single first-place vote and only five second-place nods.
The knock against Karlsson, of course, was that he wasn’t an impact player defensively. That while he put up points, his own-zone ability was questionable. And it’s important to note that was the argument against the then-Ottawa Senators defenseman winning the Norris because it’s the same case that has been made against Carlson in recent years. Granted, there’s some merit to it.
Over the past two seasons, Carlson’s 5-on-5 Corsi, shots, expected goals and scoring chance rates haven’t been among the class of the league, and combining the two campaigns, he’s either right at or below 50 percent in those categories. For what it’s worth, his talent and the level of talent around him has his actual goals for percentage at a near league-best 56.6 percent among defenders with 2,000 minutes played at 5-on-5. Not bad.
Thus, if Carlson really wants to capture the attention of Norris voters, and if he really wants to convince onlookers of his worthiness during the current advanced-statistically inclined era, perhaps the one thing he’ll need to boost this season is his five-a-side numbers. And would you look at that. As it so happens, he’s done exactly that, albeit with little more than 10 percent of the campaign in the books. With the final week of October on the horizon, Carlson boasts a 51.4 Corsi percentage, 51.9 shots percentage, 62.5 goals percentage, 54.7 expected goals percentage and 52.5 and 50 percent rates in the scoring and high-danger chance categories. And rest assured, if Carlson can keep that up, it will do wonders for his Norris candidacy.
Does he actually win the award? Well, that comes down to a few things. First, he’ll need continued offensive success. Second, he’ll have to remain healthy. Any significant absence is going to work against him. Third, he’ll have to boast similar underlying numbers come season’s end. And finally, Carlson’s Norris potential likely comes down to how much greater his offensive output is compared to other blueliners and how that mitigates what is likely to be some difference between him and other top contenders in the aforementioned advanced analytical categories.
In short, Carlson might need the perfect storm, but that he’s rolling early is as good a sign as any. And maybe if he keeps this up, he can simply blast his way to victory.
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