Quality defensemen – especially multi-dimensional ones who play well at both ends of the ice – have always been in demand in the NHL. Rearguards are difficult to obtain in deals, and they’re often overpriced in the free agent market. With those tenets in mind, the Capitals have seven first-round picks on blueliners in the last nine drafts, accounting for a healthy total of the 18 first-round defensemen in the franchise’s draft history.
John Carlson is the 18th defenseman ever chosen by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. The Caps dealt 2002 first-round defenseman Steve Eminger to Philadelphia to acquire the first-round choice (27th overall) used to select Carlson in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
“He’s got very good hockey sense,” said Caps general manager George McPhee at the time. “He is skilled. He’s got good hands. And he’s got some powerful legs. We have to teach him how to train; get him into shape. What appealed to us is he is going to play for [ex-Caps center] Dale Hunter [with the OHL’s London Knights]. We talked to Dale about that today. Dale will whip him into shape and teach him how to play.
“We liked him and we like his base attributes. But knowing he was going to Dale to refine everything and be taught how to play, that sealed it.”
In the months since he was drafted, Carlson’s star has ascended even more.
The 19-year-old has yet to pull on a red, white and blue Capitals sweater for an NHL regular season game, but he has created a good bit of advance buzz for himself. Carlson performed well in last fall’s Caps training camp during which he got his first taste of NHL preseason action. He followed that up with terrific season with the Knights of the OHL, playing under the tutelage and watchful eye of Hunter.
Then after playing in 14 playoff games with the Knights, Carlson joined the AHL Hershey Bears for their run to the Calder Cup championship last spring. But Carlson did more than “join” the Bears; he suited up for 16 playoff games and impressed some veteran observers as one of the best teen-aged defensemen they’d seen at that level.
“We had a good run in London and I loved it there,” recalls Carlson. “I can’t say enough about our run there. But Hershey was an unbelievable experience. I didn’t know what to expect going in and then I got thrown in the fire. It took me a little while to get used to it.It was a big jump but I thought I did pretty well. Looking back on it now, how many 19-year-olds can say they have an AHL championship under their belts? It was unbelievable.”
All told, Carlson played 89 games last season. He totaled 25 goals and 101 points, including a pair of goals for Hershey. Carlson turned 19 in January. Heading into this fall’s camp, he will be aiming to crack a crowded Caps blueline. The numbers might not favor Carlson; he is one of 11 or 12 candidates for (likely) seven opening season roster slots. Talent-wise, he is near the top of the list. Experience-wise, he is at the bottom.
“I definitely have a lot of work to do, I think but I don’t think it’s out of the question,” says Carlson. “Last year I came into camp wanting to make the team. I think that’s the only way to look at it. I’m going to do the same thing this year, just work as hard as I can until training camp and then when that rolls around just do my best to make the team.”
After indicating that he would play collegiate hockey at U. Mass-Amherst, Carlson reconsidered and opted to play Canadian junior hockey instead.
“We drafted him in our league in the second round,” says Hunter. “We didn’t know if he was going to come to our league or not; he had some choices to make. A month later the Caps drafted him. My brother Mark scouted him and he liked him a lot. We picked him, he came to our team. He was feeling it out early but as the season went on he got better and better and better and better and better. He is one of the best [defensemen] in our league. He can skate, he’s big and he’s smart.”
Those who’ve seen Carlson play can testify to his passion for playing the game, one of the attribute that Hunter also notes.
“He likes the game,” says the gritty Hunter, a guy who was pretty passionate on the ice himself. “He always plays with a smile on his face, like a lot of the players here: [Alex] Ovechkin, and these guys, you can see where they enjoy the game. It’s nice to see as an ex-player. Kids come here and they play hard and they enjoy the game. It’s not just a business, it’s a hockey game. It’s a kids’ game and we’re lucky to play it.
“He is going to be a good one. He still has one year of junior [eligibility] left, but he can come here and play. He’ll be good enough to play here or in Hershey, depending on how he develops. But he’s got a good shot at playing here next year.”
Carlson enjoyed played for Hunter, but aims to move on to the pro ranks this season. Practicing at Kettler and playing at Verizon Center, he can always look up to the banner bearing his junior coach’s visage, if he’s in need of some on-ice inspiration.
“I thought he was unbelievable to me all year,” says Carlson of Hunter. “He really took pride in my game and helped me out on and off the ice. We would sit down and talk and have meetings. It’s nice to have the coach at your back like that. He is a pretty big legend around here. It’s kind of cool walking around the rink and the locker room and seeing all these posters and records and stuff like that of him.”
As is the case with all teen-aged talents trying to crack the big club’s roster, Carlson is short on experience. But getting a taste of pro hockey with Hershey last spring should help his bid this fall.
“I think that will definitely help me out coming into training camp this year, having that experience and knowing what it’s like down there,” says Carlson. “It’s professional hockey. It’s the second best league in the world.
“I think everything is a learning experience. Last year’s summer camp and then going into training camp, and then the year, I think they’re all stepping stones to your final goal. If you take it pretty serious you definitely can learn some stuff out here.”
Hunter sees Carlson as a heady player.
“He is just a real smart player,” says Hunter of Carlson. “[Ex-Caps defenseman and Hockey Hall of Famer] Larry Murphy was a very smart player. I think Johnny skates a little bit better than Larry; I am not saying that against Larry. But Larry was a very smart player also. He played a long time and won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and Detroit. When he was here, as a forward you wanted to be on the ice with him. And Johnny does fight a little bit, too, so he adds that dimension also. But as a forward, I think players like [Nicklas] Backstrom and Ovechkin and these guys will like [Carlson] on the ice. He sees the open guy and makes a great first pass where he springs these guys, especially with their speed.
Growing up in New Jersey, Carlson saw a lot of the best of those 18 first-round defensemen, Hockey Hall of Famer Scott Stevens.
“I lived in New Jersey so Scott Stevens was a guy [I watched].,” says Carlson. “He was a huge defenseman who did it all. I liked to watch him play.”
The Caps tabbed Stevens with the fifth overall choice in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. After a career of more than two decades that included three Stanley Cup championships – all with New Jersey – Stevens is now a Hockey Hall of Famer.
Carlson is careful to say that he does not model his game after Stevens, a player who broke the mold in some ways. The kid blueliner and the Capitals will both be happy if he is able to do something Stevens never did accomplish during his eight seasons in the District, hoist a Stanley Cup.
Whatever lies ahead for Carlson and the Caps, the journey begins here at Kettler this fall.