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Indiana's Carlson making most of opportunities

by Shawn P. Roarke
Indiana Ice defenseman John Carlson is projected to be a first-round selection in the upcoming Draft.
Two seasons ago, John Carlson was a relative unknown about to start his junior career in the East Coast-based Metropolitan Junior Hockey League.

Today, he is the top-rated prospect in the United States Hockey League and a likely first-round pick in this June's NHL Entry Draft.

What happened?

Simply, Carlson got to show his game to the right people.

"I knew when I first saw him that he was a first-round pick,' said Jack Barzee, the USHL scout for NHL's Central Scouting. "He was a guy I had seen before as an under-ager. He had all the tools – size, skill and physical presence and charisma.'

Barzee is pretty good at reading young players, and his first impression has proven spot-on.

But he's not the only one impressed with Carlson's game. Charlie Skjodt is the coach of the USHL's Indiana Ice, and he has spent 40 years around the game. He can't believe his good fortune in having Carlson at his disposal this season.

"When I look at John Carlson, I just see pro written all over the guy,' Skjodt said of his 18-year-old prodigy. "He's big, strong, can absolutely rip it. He's good on his feet and agile for a big kid. He's poised at all times and just has the mind for the game. He never gets rattled.

Number:        #6
Position:        Defense
Born:               01/10/1990
Birthplace:     Seal Beach, CA
Height:            6-2
Weight:           215 lbs.
Shoots:           Right   

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"As a coach, you know what you are going to get every time John goes out on the ice and that's nice for a coach. He's everything a coach could want in a player. He's just the quintessential pro.'

As a result, Carlson is Indiana's No. 1 defenseman despite his rookie status. He leads the team's defensemen in points, power-play goals and shots, and is second in plus-minus. In the USHL, the only Tier I Junior A league in the United States, Carlson's 37 points are second-best among defensemen. His six power-play goals are fourth among the league's defensemen.

Not too bad for a player who, two seasons ago at age 15, was ticketed for a season of Junior A hockey while playing for the New Jersey Rockets, the organization where he played all his youth hockey after moving from Massachusetts to New Jersey as a pre-teen.

"I knew John Carlson for almost 10 years,' said Danny O'Brien, his former coach with the Rockets. "I know him as well as anybody.

"Johnny was a Junior A player at 15 and he was going to play Junior A that year. He started with the B team (in the Metropolitan league) because the A team didn't have a game that first weekend.'

The Rockets' Junior A affiliate plays in the Tier III Atlantic Junior Hockey League, a feeder program primarily for college players.

"They just thought it would be a better way for me to learn and a better way for me to develop,' Carlson said of the jump and the fact he was one of only a handful of 15-year-olds playing in the AJHL. "It was hard at first because it is a pretty big jump between those two leagues. The kids are bigger and faster, and playing against 20-year-olds was pretty different.'

But it was the right move, said O'Brien, who left the Rockets a few years back and now scouts for Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League. 

"It took Johnny a while to get up to speed, but he did it,' O'Brien said. "He needed that challenge and he made the most of it.'

Carlson made the necessary adjustment and more than held his own as a 15-year-old. The next year, he owned the league, scoring 58 points.

Bob Thornton took over as Rockets coach last fall and watched Carlson's stunning development into an elite prospect, one that already had sewn up a full ride to the University of Massachusetts.

Thornton, who played for several years in the ECHL, isn't one to throw around praise when discussing his players. But he insists Carlson is the real deal.

John Carlson says although he thinks about
being drafted often, it dosen't affect his play.
"He passes like a pro and he shoots like a pro and that is why he is such a good prospect,' Thornton says. "He really put his name on the map with the numbers he put up last year.'

Colby Cohen and Nick Petrecki were two of the top draft-eligible defensemen in the USHL last season. Cohen scored 60 points for the Lincoln Stars and then was taken by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Petrecki, meanwhile, scored just 25 points for Omaha, but was taken by San Jose with the 28th overall pick of the first round.

Barzee said Carlson is a near-perfect combination of what those two players bring to the rink.

"He's a little different from both of them, but in the same category,' Barzee said. "Here's a kid that's a big, strapping kid. He's probably going to be 6-foot-3, 220 (pounds) before it's over. He has an intimidating shot from the point and he is good on the power play.' 

That means that there will be some serious first-round interest in Carlson this June in Ottawa. He is No. 19 in Central Scouting's mid-term rankings of North American skaters, but is the first USHL player rated.

This year's draft is considered exceptionally deep, especially among defenseman. In fact, 13 defensemen are among the top-30 North American skaters, according to Central Scouting. Six of those defensemen are rated in the top 10.

But that hasn't stopped Carlson from entertaining thoughts about hearing NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announce his name during the first round of the draft. 

"That's always been a dream of mine,' Carlson said. "If that comes true, I would be ecstatic.'

He admits being drafted into the NHL at any point is a mind-blowing concept to him.

"I think about (the draft) all the time, probably,' he said. "I try not to let it affect me or my play, though. I'm not a guy that looks at all the stats and tries to see what other guys are doing. I just worry about myself. If I don't play well, then I am upset with myself, and if I do play well, then I am happy.'

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