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Carlson on historic scoring pace for Capitals, fires up Hall of Famers

Can become first defenseman since 1991-92 to top 100 points, impresses Leetch, Murphy

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- John Carlson was in awe the first time he met Bobby Orr.

Orr, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman a record eight times with the Boston Bruins and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979, was recruiting Carlson, now a Washington Capitals defenseman, to be represented by his agency, The Orr Hockey Group. 

"I think I would have been 15 or 16, 17 maybe," Carlson said Sunday.

It was a big moment for Carlson, who was born in Natick, Massachusetts before moving to Colonia, New Jersey when he was 5.

"Of course, especially for me," Carlson said. "And my family from Massachusetts are all big hockey fans and certainly Bobby Orr fans."

Fast forward to this season, when Carlson's remarkable point pace has his him in the company of the best defensemen to play the game, including Orr. 

Carlson leads NHL defensemen and is tied with Bruins forward David Pastrnak for fifth in the League with 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 31 games heading into Washington's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, NBCSWA, FS-O, NHL.TV).

Video: WSH@LAK: Carlson scores 100th career NHL goal

On pace to finish with 114 points, Carlson would be the first defenseman to reach 100 since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers had 102 (22 goals, 80 assists) in 1991-92. 

The only defensemen in NHL history to finish with more than 114 points in a season were Orr (139 in 1970-71, 135 in 1974-75, 122 in 1973-74, 120 in 1969-70, 117 in 1971-72) and Paul Coffey (138 in 1985-86, 126 in 1983-84 and 121 in 1984-85) with the Edmonton Oilers. 

Carlson, who had a career-high 70 points last season (13 goals, 57 assists), doesn't consider himself near the level of Orr, Coffey, who won the Norris three times, or Leetch, a two-time winner.

"They're obviously Hall of Fame players that had really good careers," Carlson said. "It's pretty cool, but I'm not in the same realm as them."

Superstitious, Orr declined a request to talk about Carlson's season. Through his agency, Orr said, "If I could, I'd tell you how proud I am of what he's accomplished so far this season, but I can't because I don't want to jinx him."

Carlson laughed when he heard that. He and Orr talk on the phone or text occasionally and he knows Orr is following him closely.

"He's always trying to angle some way or another," Carlson said. "But I see him a couple times a year and we chat here and there throughout the season."

Leetch, a 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who works for the Rangers as an adviser, has also been watching Carlson and said he believes Carlson has a good chance to reach 100 points. 

"He's got a lot of things that have to happen to go that way with a good team and he plays all the minutes and he's got goal scorers on there and he's getting good looks, too," Leetch said. "It's all working right now, so it's possible, no question about it."

Carlson is eighth in the NHL in averaging 24:58 in ice time per game and plays in all situations -- even-strength, power play and penalty kill. The Capitals lead the NHL with 112 goals and have a League-high six players who have scored at least 10: Alex Ovechkin (20), Jakub Vrana (15), Evgeny Kuznetsov (12), Tom Wilson (11), T.J. Oshie (11) and Carlson (11).  

So Carlson has plenty of opportunities to create and finish scoring chances.

"I just try to work my hardest and make as many plays as I can," Carlson said. 

Video: WSH@SJS: Carlson cranks a slap shot past Jones

Larry Murphy, who set the Capitals' single-season record for defensemen with 81 points (23 goals, 58 assists) in 1986-87, sounds resigned to losing that record to Carlson this season.

"He's looking at a 100-point season," Murphy said. "That's a big surprise. It's a tremendous accomplishment. You never knew if we were ever going to see a defenseman again with 100 points and he's obviously going to be the one." 

Brent Burns (83 points with the San Jose Sharks in 2018-19), Erik Karlsson (82 with the Ottawa Senators in 2015-16) and Nicklas Lidstrom (80 with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06) are the only defensemen to get as many as 80 points in a season since 1995-96.  

As recently as 2014-15, no forwards reached 100 points. But with scoring on the rise, there are 10 players, including Carlson, on pace to finish with 100 this season.

"It's awesome because it shows where the game was and the changes it went through in the '90s and then the clutch and grab and then the new rules and the goaltending equipment and everything," Leetch said.

Carlson, who has points in his past four games (three goals, four assists), is trying to concentrate on helping the Capitals (22-4-5) - - they lead the NHL with 49 points - - and block out talk that he might win the Norris Trophy for the first time. But Leetch said Carlson is "definitely the frontrunner."

"I guess what surprises me is how easy it's looked this year," Leetch said. "It's not like he's doing anything a lot different. He plays the same solid game. He's up in the play like he was, but he shoots it and it goes in, he jumps into the play at the right time and he makes some difficult passes on the power play and cross-ice and he makes some of them look pretty easy."

Murphy, an analyst for Fox Sports Detroit and 2004 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, said he believes Carlson doesn't get enough credit for his defensive play because of how good he's been offensively.

"That draws a lot of attention when you put up numbers like that, but he's well-rounded," Murphy said. "He plays well in his own end. You hate to give him that label as an offensive defenseman because he's a lot more than that."

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