Heading into the 2017-18 season, Capitals defenseman John Carlson knew the team would be counting on him to play a bigger role on the team's blue line. The Capitals would ice a new set of defensemen, with young players suddenly filling in as full-time players. In Washington's first four games of the season, Carlson averaged over 25 minutes-per-game on the ice, which was three minutes more than he averaged last season.
Then when fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen went down with an injury against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 13, Carlson's role expanded even more.
Since Niskanen's injury, Carlson has averaged 28:00 minutes on the ice, and his 27:20 average time on ice for the season is the highest in the NHL.
Although Carlson is playing five more minutes per game than he did last season, the Natick, Massachusetts native has maintained a high level of play throughout the season.
"Going into it I thought I would play more, but not this much more," Carlson said. "It's just a matter of Nisky getting hurt. We knew we were going to have a good blend of young guys, and then when you lose your mainstays, everyone else has to step up, especially early in the season."
Carlson's ability to thrive with such a heavy workload is a direct result of the work he put in during the offseason, and his commitment to his conditioning during the season.
"We knew it was going to be a big year for John to be able to play some more minutes, and play a bigger and more consistent role on the power play than he did last year," said Capitals associate coach Todd Reirden. "It was a real big challenge for John to get himself in really good condition to start the season, and this is the healthiest and best shape he's started the season in, going back to maybe my first season with him here. It was a really good challenge to him and he's been up to task to start the year."
Video: PIT@WSH: Carlson rips a one-timer home for a PPG
In addition to Carlson's dependability in terms of how much he's played, he's also a valuable asset for the Capitals because of how versatile his game is. That versatility was evident in the Capitals' overtime victory against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 6. Carlson logged 27:41 minutes of ice time, recorded a primary assist on the game-tying second goal and scored his second-career overtime goal. Carlson even took a face-off in the win.
Carlson says his ability to play a handful of different roles comes from his background of playing in a bunch of different leagues, and even playing forward when he was a younger hockey player.
"He has the ability to play the game a number of different ways," Reirden said. "He's a bigger guy who has the ability to be physical at different times. Given the situation he can play against bigger, stronger guys down low and be fine. He also has the ability to play against the fastest guys in the league, whether it's Connor McDavid in Edmonton a few weeks ago or he's going against Sidney Crosby and the line that Pittsburgh has.
Video: ARI@WSH: Carlson wires in wrister to win it in OT
"He's multi-dimensional in terms of his way to defend, and he can match speed versus any of those high-speed guys, but he's still able to play against some of the bigger players who really excel in down-low play. He can play whatever game is presented to him, and I think that's what makes it a very fortunate situation for someone like me who's putting him on the ice that he can play the game in a number of different ways."
With Carlson leading the way for the Capitals defensemen with 13 points (2g, 11a) so far this season, he's also setting a strong example for the team's rookie defensemen like Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos to follow. Playing the role of mentor is something that Carlson takes seriously because he remembers when he was a young player trying to find his way in the NHL.
"He comes to the rink ready to work hard every single day, and even though he's already an elite defenseman, he still finds ways to work on his game," Bowey said. "For me he's a great guy to look up to because we're both right-handed shots and have bigger bodies. As I was growing up I always liked watching him and watching the way he played. His focus on the game is tremendous and I think that's something that I can really learn from and build off in my career for sure."