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Carlson, Leetch have much in common

Capitals defenseman has many of same traits as Hockey Hall of Famer

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as The Hockey Maven, will share his knowledge, brand of humor and insights with readers each week.

This week, Stan takes a look at the similarities between two of the best U.S.-born defensemen in NHL history -- Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who spent most of his career with the New York Rangers, and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals.

 

Start a conversation about the best United States-born defensemen in NHL history and the name of Brian Leetch comes up quickly. Though his career still has a long way to go, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals is earning fans of his own in that conversation.

Leetch was a No. 1 defenseman who spent almost all of his NHL career with the New York Rangers (and is arguably the greatest player in their history). Carlson led all NHL defensemen this season in assists (60) and points (75), and he's averaged more than 70 points during the past three seasons.

Each has also stepped up his game to help his team win a championship. Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1994 after helping the Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought. Carlson led all defensemen in scoring two years ago when the Capitals won the Cup for the first time since entering the NHL in 1974.

Leetch's coaches raved about the Hockey Hall of Famer's multiple talents, as well as his durability.

He impressed Roger Neilson, his coach with the Rangers in the early 1990s. "Brian is such a good hockey player," Neilson once quipped, "I'm tempted to leave him in all the time."

Video: Brian Leetch first American to win Conn Smythe

Mike Keenan seconded the motion at Madison Square Garden on June 14, 1994, when Leetch's first-period goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final helped the Rangers win their first championship since 1940.

Rangers captain Mark Messier, not necessarily in a moment of overstatement, called Leetch, "The greatest Ranger of all-time." Whether that's true or not, Messier's point was 100 percent on target; without Leetch, the Rangers would never have ended their Cup drought in 1994.

Carlson is the defenseman who makes the Capitals' offense go today. Washington has had Hall of Famers such as Rod Langway and Scott Stevens on the blue line, but Carlson is the only one to help the Capitals win a championship.

"We couldn't have won it without John's work," said Barry Trotz, who coached the Capitals to the Cup in 2018 and is now behind the bench with the New York Islanders.

The numbers confirm Trotz's viewpoint.

In 24 games during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Carlson was tops among defensemen with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) after finishing first in scoring among defensemen during the regular season with 68 points (15 goals, 53 assists) while playing all 82 games.

"He's always believed that he'll be the best defenseman on the ice." said goalie Brayden Holtby, a longtime teammate.

Like Leetch, Carlson can play major minutes at an elite level. He's averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time in seven of eight seasons since 2012-13 and has played every game on the schedule seven times, including this season, when he was relied on more than ever after the offseason departures of defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.

"He's been a leader ever since junior hockey and world play," said Todd Reirden, who succeeded Trotz as coach. "John enjoys playing in the big moments, being on the big stage."

Video: Norris Trophy finalist: John Carlson

Carlson and Leetch each honed his skills on local teams. At Connecticut's prestigious Avon Old Farms School, Leetch alternated between baseball and hockey. He excelled at both.

"Brian probably could have been a pro pitcher just as easily as skate in the NHL," remembered Al Rozinski, a teacher at Avon Old Farms. "His level of confidence, practice, attention to detail and commitment was magical. No other student in my 26 years as an educator surpassed the Brian Leetch 'total package' as a well-rounded student and person. Never anything but doing his best was Leetch's hallmark style and reputation. He led by example."

NHL scouts already were dazzled by Leetch's talents on the ice, and the Rangers selected him in the first round (No. 9) of the 1986 NHL Draft.

"Brian was a natural," said Phil Esposito, who had become general manager of the Rangers in 1986. "None of the top picks that year made it to the Hall of Fame, but Brian did. That tells you something about his talent."

Leetch made his NHL debut on Feb. 29, 1988, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1988-89, when he led all first-year players in scoring. He was voted winner of the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL for the first time in 1992, when he became the fifth (and most recent) defenseman to break the 100-point mark. Leetch took home the Conn Smythe in 1994 and won the Norris again in 1997.

Carlson excelled with the New Jersey Rockets of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League and Indiana of the United States Hockey League before the Capitals picked him in the first round (No. 27) of the 2008 NHL Draft. He played with London of the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09, began 2009-10 with Hershey, Washington's American Hockey League affiliate, but showed he was ready for the NHL by midseason and earned a callup.

After the Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Carlson returned to Hershey and played a key role on a Calder Cup-winning team.

"His response was amazing," said Lisa Melmed, who produced a documentary, "B'ars To Bears," about the AHL club, "He scored the game-winning and Calder Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Final Round."

That was his last game in Hershey. Carlson played all 82 games for the Capitals in 2010-11, finishing with 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) and earning a place on the NHL All-Rookie Team.

Leetch's already-superb game took a step forward after Keenan was named coach late in the 1992-93 season. Keenan helped Leetch complement his offensive skills with improved play in his own zone. He became one of the best transition players in the NHL, excelling in breaking up opponents' plays and getting the puck headed the other way.

"We had a terrific team that had many -- but not all -- the ingredients for a championship," Leetch remembered in 2007, when he won the Lester Patrick Award for service to hockey in the United States.

"Of course, our aim was to win the Stanley Cup. Everybody on the club knew that our franchise hadn't won it since 1940, so we were well-motivated."

They did just that in 1994, with Leetch becoming the first U.S.-born Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Leetch played a big role in the Rangers' championship run, especially in Game 7. New York needed a confidence boost after losing Games 5 and 6 to the Vancouver Canucks, and Leetch provided it by scoring the game's first goal at 11:02 of the first period. The Rangers went on to a 3-2 win and the Cup.

"It was Brian who ignited the team with that goal," Keenan said. "That was one of his best assets; the ability to get the team going. Which he did."

Carlson made his first big splash at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship, when he scored the tournament-winning goal for the United States in overtime against Canada. It was his second goal in the 6-5 victory; he was named to the tournament's all-star team and later was named to the NHL.com's all-time World Junior Championship team. He also scored the first goal for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

When the NHL paused its season on March 12 because of concerns about the coronavirus, he had 75 points (15 goals, 60 assists) in 69 games. Carlson was voted an NHL First-Team All-Star and finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy

"Carlson's so good," wrote Colby Cohen in The Athletic, "that the opposition has to put not one but two forecheckers on him. He moves up and down the ice with such great ease."

Bottom line: Leetch and Carlson are birds of a hockey feather. They're two of a kind, a pair of "Made In America" defensive aces.

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