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Carlson is next-generation Langway on defense for Capitals

Despite different styles, each became bedrock on blue line in Washington

by Stan Fischler / Special to

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

Today, he compares two defenseman who've excelled with the Washington Capitals: Rod Langway, whose arrival in 1982 turned the franchise around, and John Carlson, who was key to their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018 and is off to the best start in his NHL career.

Rod Langway and John Carlson stand out as supreme defensemen for the Washington Capitals; one in the 1980s, the other today.

They're opposites in style. Langway mastered the art of defusing attackers, while Carlson has emerged as a defenseman whose biggest impact comes on offense.

Yet they are one and the same in a key category: Langway became the Capitals' defensive bedrock when he was acquired in a 1982 trade and quickly took over as the face of the franchise. These days, Carlson is the rock on which the Capitals' defense is built and has become a potential Norris Trophy winner.

Langway's acquisition from the Montreal Canadiens in a September 1982 trade was a turning point for the Capitals, who went from a team that had never made the Stanley Cup Playoffs to one that become a postseason regular -- always, by the way, helmetless. He was the lead horse that pulled the wagon.

Not coincidentally, when teammate Tom Wilson recently was asked about Carlson's value, he also went to the equine comparison. "John's been our 'horse' since I've been here," Wilson said. "He's our steady rock back there; gets the job done."

Carlson averaged 25:04 of ice time last season, when he finished with an NHL career-high 70 points and was an NHL Second-Team All-Star. Coach Todd Reirden is leaning on the 30-year-old even more this season, especially after Matt Niskanen was traded and Brooks Orpik retired.

"John knew this year would be different with new partners," Reirden said, "and he's become the guy back there on the blue line."

Video: Stan Fischler compares careers of Langway and Carlson

That's an understatement. Carlson has become the man who makes Washington's offense go -- he's among the NHL's top-10 scorers as the season nears the halfway mark and a big reason the Capitals are again on top in the Metropolitan Division. He's among the NHL's elite defensemen along with players Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks.

When Langway was in his prime during the early 1980s, future Hall of Famers such as Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins and Paul Coffey of the Edmonton Oilers were among the NHL's biggest stars. But Langway won the Norris Trophy in 1982-83, then repeated the following season.

Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and executive and now an NBC hockey analyst, once X-rayed the trio and emphatically rated Langway as best of the bunch.

"There's no doubt who was better," said Milbury, who faced Langway during most of his 12 seasons as an NHL defenseman with the Boston Bruins. "It was Langway. If I had to pick between them, I would rather have had Rod because he had a better approach to the game.

"He was more of a team player with a lot more character, and that's the thing you want most of all on a hockey team."

When it comes to teamsmanship in today's game, Carlson takes a back seat to no one. And while he has yet to win the Norris Trophy -- he finished fourth in voting last season -- this could be his year.

"The way John has come to dominate this year is pretty incredible," longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom said, "He's not chasing points either; he's a really good defenseman."

Langway already was a "really good defenseman" when the not-very-good Capitals obtained him in a franchise-altering trade with Montreal. There are those who said acquiring Langway saved the Capitals from moving. Canadiens general manager Irving Grundman sent Langway, fellow defenseman Brian Engblom and forwards Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin to Washington for defenseman Rick Green and forward Ryan Walter.

Langway, who was overshadowed by Montreal's "Big Three" of Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe, blossomed into a star in Washington -- and Grundman was out of a job within the year.

As captain, Langway turned into as much a role model as a team leader. Before he arrived, the Capitals hadn't made the playoffs since entering the NHL in 1974. Langway's presence helped them end that drought in 1982-83, and they qualified for 14 consecutive seasons.

"I remember coaching against him," said ex-Detroit Red Wings coach Jacques Demers, "and there were times when Rod would play 30 or even 40 minutes a game."

Langway took his captaincy seriously. One day when a rookie disobeyed coach Bryan Murray, he closed the dressing room door and explained right from wrong to the newcomer. The kid got the message and shaped up after that.

Likewise, Carlson leads by words and actions. He began this season by becoming the fourth defenseman in NHL history to have 20 points in October, and he's remained near the top of the NHL scoring race.

Video: WSH@LAK: Carlson dances around Quick for sweet tally

In his annual review of the best NHL players, Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News noted how Carlson had ascended to the elite level in recent years.

"Slowly and steadily John has climbed to the top rung of NHL defensemen thanks to his excellent two-way acumen," Kennedy wrote.

There's no question that Carlson, like Hall of Famer Langway a few decades earlier, is continuing to hit new highs as his NHL career enters its second decade. He's already matched Langway on the championship scoreboard. Each is a Stanley Cup-winner; Langway in 1979 with Montreal, Carlson in 2018 with the Capitals.

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