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Buyers such as New Jersey Devils: Beware of John Carlson This Summer

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John Carlson is easily the most impressive defenseman potentially hitting free agency this summer. He’s right-handed, he’s 28, and coming off a career year in points. This post argues that despite all of that, buyers like the New Jersey Devils should beware of him; he’s not the top-pairing defenseman you may think.

Washington Capitals v Vancouver Canucks
“Buyer beware?” Yes, John. Buyer beware.
Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

John Carlson is having himself a fantastic 2017-18. He set a season high in his career and led all NHL defensemen with 68 points. He finished second among all NHL defensemen with 32 power play points and fifth with 237 shots. Carlson has continued his torrid production in the playoffs. As J.P. noted on Twitter yesterday, Carlson is a point away from tying his previous playoff high and franchise record for playoff points by a defensemen. What’s more is that the Carlson and the Washington Capitals are on the verge of achieving a rare event for them: getting past the second round of the playoffs. What this means for the 28-year old is that he stands to make a lot of money this summer as he is a pending unrestricted free agent. Of course, he didn’t need the career year to do that. Just look at the list of UFA defensemen at CapFriendly and remember that Carlson is 28, he’s a right-side defenseman with a right-handed shot, and he’s the only one on the list who has averaged over 20 minutes per game last season (he plays in all situations for Washington) and is under the age of 30. It is not common that these players are available in free agency - assuming Carlson does not re-sign with Washington prior to July 1. Right-handed shooting defensemen have become a resource in demand in recent seasons. If a team has one, they’re relatively young, and they’re good, then they tend to be given long contracts to lock them up. Just look at Adam Larsson or Damon Severson, for example; they each received six-year deals for $25 million when their previous contracts ended and they weren’t even close to UFA status then. And, don’t forget, Adam Larsson was thought highly enough by Edmonton that they gave up Taylor Hall straight up for him. One for one. All to get that right-handed shot. Combined with the impressive regular season point totals and playoff performances, Carlson will become a very rich man this summer. Somebody is going to pay a lot of money and term to have him suit up and drop bombs from the point as a top pairing defenseman for their team.

It should not be the New Jersey Devils. In fact, I think buyers should beware of Carlson. Namely because Carlson is not really a top-pairing defenseman.

Carlson in 5-on-5 Play, or “Where’s the First-Pairing Beef?”

Before jumping into any stats, I want to explain where I am coming from regarding Carlson. I get that Carlson will get paid a lot of money. There really isn’t another defenseman with the resume Carlson has and is under the age of 30. If a team needs to offer seven years and/or over $50 million for a player, then the team pretty much has to give them a lot of ice time and opportunities to provide enough to justify what will likely be a massive contract. Given the season Carlson has had plus scarcity of right-hand shooting defenseman as well as the fact that Carlson is not even 30 yet, I can absolutely see him getting a contract at that level. Don’t just take my word for it. Evolving Wild ran a contract projection for the pending UFAs and has Carlson at around $7.7 million average accrued value (a.k.a. the cap hit). While that is only a projection model, the larger point remains: he’s going to be a very rich man.

Consider the eight defensemen who currently carry a cap hit of at least $7 million, as per CapFriendly: P.K. Subban (who led the league in cap hit by defensemen with $9 million), Brent Burns, Victor Hedman, Shea Weber (who led the league in 2017-18 salary for defensemen with $12 million), Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Suter, Aaron Ekblad, and Kris Letang. They were all productive and played a a lot of minutes (Ekblad is the low man at 23:24) on average. Each of these defensemen were and are their team’s #1 or #2 defenseman when they signed those deals.

If I am a general manager or a team owner, then I want to be assured that Carlson is going to be on their level before committing that much money to him in free agency. The problem is that there is not much evidence that he is on their level.

The most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5 play. For Carlson or anyone signed to be a first-pairing defenseman, I would expect them to perform well in 5-on-5 play. Or at least have the run of play improve when they step on the ice; to show that they are an impact player, so to speak. Carlson just had a career year in production, but how did he do aside from the points? And prior to this season? Is there something there that suggests he’s really a first-pair caliber defenseman?

In order to answer those questions, I pulled both 5-on-5 on-ice rate and relative (on-ice minus off-ice) stats from Natural Stat Trick for Carlson in the last three seasons. Carlson’s previous career season was in 2014-15, so I want to show how things went after that season since he is having another, more impressive career season in 2017-18. I also included the stats of three other right-hand shooting defensemen to provide points of comparison (this is why it is only regular season stats). I will reveal who they are at the end.

Note: I’m using Natural Stat Trick’s stats, so please refer to their glossary for an explanation of what all of these abbreviations mean.

2015-16

Let’s begin with the first season after Carlson’s last career year. This was a tough season for Carlson as he missed a large portion of the season. According to this May 12, 2016 Washington Post article by Isabelle Khurshudyan, Carlson suffered a broken ankle in December, came back too soon, and ended up having surgery on it in February. He returned for the postseason and was productive. Keep this in mind with these numbers.

2015-16 On-Ice Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2015-16 On-Ice Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

Despite the injury, Carlson’s 5-on-5 numbers were really good. He was above break even (50%) for shooting attempts and scoring chance differentials. Carlson was well above it for shots against along with a very solid SA/60 rate. While not as productive as he was in 2014-15, Carlson was still firing away and put up a great rate of production. The GA/60 and GF% look fantastic; but keep in mind that A) Carlson is on a high-scoring Capitals team and B) Braden Holtby was so good, he won the Vezina in 2016. The only aspect he faltered in was in high danger scoring chances; but the other numbers point to Carlson having done well.

Carlson compared well with Players X, Y, and Z. Player Z was more consistent across the board and posted better rate stats. He was not as productive, but the run of play went better even with more defensive zone starts than Carlson. Player Y had the best rate stats, but due to his teams issues on offense, the percentages were almost all at least one percent below 50%.

2015-16 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2015-16 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

The relative stats paint a worse picture for Carlson. Relative stats are on-ice minus off-ice, so a positive relative CA/60 or SA/60 means that the Capitals gave up a higher rate of attempts or shots against when the player was on the ice. That’s not good. The percentages represent how the team did, so positive percentages are good. So when Carlson stepped on the ice in 2015-16, the Capitals’ SA/60 went up by 0.88. But because the Capitals generated more offense, the relative SF% was positive. It could be argued that while that may not reflect well on defense, the run of play was still in Washington’s favor.

Unfortunately for Carlson, that was only the case for shots against and goals against. Washington’s opponents were able to take more attempts and create more scoring chances when he was out there. It could be worse. He could have been Player X, whose team was hammered when he was out there. It’s remarkable that Player X’s GA/60 only moved up by 0.14 and his teammates would score more. Player Y was all positive but by a whole lot. Player Z impressed here as well; his relative rate stats were all negative and the team’s percentages went up when he stepped on the ice.

Basically, Carlson did well on the ice, especially after dealing with injuries throughout the season. His relative stats point to a step back of sorts, so it was not all good but it was not at all bad either. Despite not being as productive, it appears that Player Z was the better defenseman, though.

2016-17

Carlson dealt with some minor injuries but did play closer to a full season with 72 games in 2016-17.

2016-17 On-Ice Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2016-17 On-Ice Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

The on-ice against rate stats all went up a bit across the board for Carlson. Nothing so heinous that resulted in a huge drop in percentages or would make one think Carlson forgot how to play. Still, Carlson finished below 50% in every category except goals for percentage. It must be nice playing on a high-scoring team with Holtby nearly repeating his Vezina-winning 2015-16 season. Player Z, in comparison, was even better in everything except high-danger scoring chance percentage - and even there, Z has a superior HDCA/60 than Carlson. Player Z also saw an uptick in their production; Z’s shooting rate nearly matched Carlson and Z had a superior point production rate.

As for Players X and Y, they probably wished they had better offensive support. Despite having against-rate stats mostly better than Carlson, Player Y is still negative in every category. Especially goals; a GA/60 rate of 2.23 really is not bad but knowing his GF% is 41% means there were even fewer goals scored. At least Y was positive in CF% too. Player X also had mostly lower against-rate stats (slightly lower as they were) than Carlson. Neither X or Y could come close to how often Carlson shot the puck or collected points in 5-on-5 play, though.

2016-17 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2016-17 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats of Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

Oh, Carlson. These are bad relative stats. Just really bad. Across the board, every time he stepped on the ice, the Capitals just gave up more. More attempts, more shots, more scoring chances, more high-danger chances, and more goals. It’s not like Carlson played a lot of minutes or had difficult situations on a regular basis. Player X saw some jumps when he stepped on the ice, but nothing to that level. Player Y had a mix of gains but ultimately was not so bad (except for that GF% jumping despite a decrease of GA/60, he needed some more offensive help). Player Z came out the best again here.

The on-ice numbers went in the wrong direction for Carlson in 2016-17 and his relative on-ice stats were terrible. It could be an issue with a teammate, it could be an issue with coaching or usage, or something else. Whatever it was, it was not good. Especially in the face of Player Z.

2017-18

Carlson played in every Washington game possible so far and he had a career year in points in his contract year. Did he also bounce back in 5-on-5 play?

2017-18 On-Ice Rate Stats for Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2017-18 On-Ice Rate Stats for Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

No! They became worse! Back in 2015-16, Carlson had a SA/60 below 28. In this past season, it’s above 32. It would not be so bad if it the Capitals were out-shooting their opponents in 5-on-5 play when Carlson was on the ice. The 47.86% means that was not happening. And the opposition also generated more scoring chances and high-danger chances. The only positives from his 5-on-5 play are the points (a rate of 1.31 is great), the shots (6.67 shots per 60 minute is also great), and the GF% (again, Caps can score).

What’s weirder is that X, Y, and Z all saw increases compared to where they were two seasons ago. Player Z still has better on-ice rates than Carlson; however, the team was out-performed in all categories except for goals when Z was on the ice. That’s a win of sorts. It is worth noting that Z was not too bad in terms of production with points-per-60 rate above one and at a shots-per-60 rate above five. Players X and Y also put up better rate stats, with more of a mixture of percentages. X somehow had a terrible scoring chance percentage but a very good high-danger chance percentage. Y had the same phenomenon, but with less intensity. Y also had his SA/60 shoot up to above 32, but his team out-shot their competition at least. Still, Carlson does not look good on his own compared with past seasons or with X, Y, or Z on the ice.

2017-18 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats for Carlson against X, Y, and Z
2017-18 On-Ice Relative Rate Stats for Carlson against X, Y, and Z
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

At least one can take solace in that when Carlson stepped on the ice, the Caps did not become out-shot more or out-attempted or out-chanced more. Granted, the rate stats all went up, particularly for attempts and shots against, but not so much that the Caps suffered for it. That mitigates what Carlson had last season. And he’s better than Player X and Y for a change. Still, Player Z had better relative stats than Carlson.

Who is X, Y, and Z?

In total, Carlson was worse than Player Z in 5-on-5 play. He may have had more points and shots, but in terms of what the teams allowed in both on-ice rates and relative stats, Player Z was the standout. Players X and Y were more mixed and it could be argued that Carlson has been better than both; but it was not always a guarantee.

Time to reveal Players X, Y, and Z.

Player X is Sami Vatanen. The former Duck was thrust into a first-pairing role next Andy Greene for most of his 57 games with the Devils. He is an example of what could happen when you take someone who was not a first-pairing defenseman for their team and make him one. It was not bad, but it was also not exceptional either.

Player Y is Damon Severson. Severson is 23 and while he may never have the eye-popping levels of production that Carlson ever had, he is not too far off from what Carlson has performed on the ice. Severson just had a season with John Moore and even there, it was not like the team was entirely crushed when he was out there.

Player Z is Matt Niskanen. Yes, Matt Niskanen of the Washington Capitals. Despite a career season in 2014-15, Carlson could not unseat Niskanen on the top pairing in the last three seasons. Based on the stats, it is a good thing that the Capitals coaches have not made that switch. Carlson has not overtaken Niskanen in terms of minutes or position on the depth chart. Niskanen had more defensive zone starts, which suggests he has received tougher minutes. Niskanen has not been as productive as Carlson, but his on-ice rate and on-ice relative stats both point to the fact that Niskanen has been the better defenseman than Carlson. The Capitals have performed better in 5-on-5 play with Niskanen than with Carlson. That is why he has been, should be, and is the first pairing defender over Carlson.

To put it another way, Carlson was not even the best right-handed defenseman on his own team in the last three seasons. There really is nothing in his 5-on-5 stats that suggests that Carlson is a first-pair caliber defenseman. If he was blowing away Vatanen and Severson for all three seasons, then sure. But that didn’t happen.

Teammates

I will point out that Carlson’s most common defensive partner in 5-on-5 has not always been the best. But he’s played with Washington’s best skaters too. Here’s the top five most common teammates for Carlson and Niskanen, who I am including to make a point:

2015-16 Carlson: Nate Schmidt, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik

2015-16 Niskanen: Karl Alzner, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Kuznetsov

2016-17 Carlson: Alzner, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Dmitry Orlov, Kuznetsov

2016-17 Niskanen: Orlov, Alzner, Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov

2017-18 Carlson: Christian Djoos, Orpik, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov

2017-18 Niskanen: Orlov, Backstrom, Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Kuznetsov

It’s arguable that Niskanen had the best defenseman partner in Orlov. It is arguable that Carlson could have benefited from a better defenseman next to him on a regular basis. However, Niskanen put up very good stats with Alzner in 2015-16 and Carlson did not. Carlson did well in time with Orlov, but Orlov was better with Niskanen. 2015-16 Carlson did well with Brooks Orpik but 2017-18 Carlson did not. And both Carlson and Niskanen played a lot with Washington’s top forwards: Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kuznetsov. To that end, I can agree it is a factor but it does not sway my thinking that Calrson is not really a top defenseman. Especially since Niskanen was able to do so with Alzner two seasons ago and the Orlov-Niskanen was a better combination than the 385 or so minutes of Orlov-Carlson in 2016-17. That tells me further than Niskanen is the real first-pairing guy.

Again, I go back to the heading: Where’s the beef? Where’s the substance that suggests that Carlson can be a top-pairing defenseman? Sure, Vatanen did not have that evidence either and he was thrust into it. But your mileage may vary on whether that was really a good idea. Vatanen’s own 5-on-5 stats suggest that it was not. Replacing Vatanen with Carlson, who has not been that much superior to Vatanen in the run of play, may not provide enough gains to warrant the cost to get him.

Special Teams, Or He’s Great on the Power Play if You Have a Legend Bombing One-Timers from the Right Circle

John Carlson is undeniably a power play workhorse. When I went to Natural Stat Trick to look up who has been used regular on Washington’s power play, John Carlson was the primary rearguard in their 1-3-1 formation by ice time alone. He has played at least 190 power play minutes in each season, with a whopping 303:48 last season. As such, he has some great looking numbers. The production, again, was impressive and has grown over the last three seasons. In 2015-16, he had two power play goals and 14 power play points; in 2016-17, he had three power play goals and 16 power play points; and in 2017-18, he had four power play goals and 32 (!!) power play points.

However, the asterisk on that is that he’s been primarily playing with Backstrom and the greatest goal scorers of all time in Ovechkin on those power plays. All 14 of his 2015-16 power play points were on the ice with Ovechkin and 11 of his 14 with were with Backstrom. In 2016-17, 12 of his 16 power play points were with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice. In this past season, 31 of his 32 power play points were with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice. The Washington power play has been a great influence on the league. The 1-3-1 formation became popular from them and the Devils have used their back-pass option on breakouts. However, most teams do not have a Backstrom or an Ovechkin to make that work at the frightening level that it has been. Carlson and his future team will have to consider that before seeing the power play numbers and going, “I want him, no, I need him now.”

In terms of who Carlson has been assisting for, these two come up again. Carlson assisted on four of Ovechkin’s goals and two of Backstrom’s goals in 2015-16. In 2016-17, Carlson assisted on four of Ovechkin’s goals and three of Backstrom’s goals. Carlson assisted on fifteen (!!!) of Ovechkin’s goals and three of Backstrom’s goals in 2017-18. Again, most teams do not have an Ovechkin or a Backstrom to finish or keep distributing the puck. That’s why his great power play stats should have an asterisk of sorts. I don’t doubt his contributions. He has been great for Washington. I doubt whether his contributions make him a great power play asset for other teams besides Washington.

As far as the other end of special teams go, well, Carlson has been a regular. He has not been all that dominant. Here’s a quick run down of his PK stats from Natural Stat Trick, compared with other Washington defensemen who played at least 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time in that respective season:

John Carlson PK Stats, ranked against other Caps defenders who played at least 60 minutes on PK.
John Carlson PK Stats, ranked against other Caps defenders who played at least 60 minutes on PK.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

This is quick and dirty but it suggests that he is not so hot on the penalty kill. While he was a regular and played a lot, he was only close to being one of the two best in 2016-17. That he was not in 2017-18 or 2015-16 would make me wonder how good he really is. Your mileage may vary with on-ice rates for the penalty kill, but it does not seem that he excelled at limiting attempts, chances, or shots relative to other defensemen who played quite a bit on Washington’s penalty kill.

Esesentially, Carlson’s big value on special teams is on the power play. Although it appears he could take PK shifts, Carlson has been very productive and the Washington power play has set a standard of sorts. That said, taking Carlson away from Ovechkin and Backstrom may result in Washington’s power play still being a constant threat and Carlson finding out that he could miss both. A big chunk of his 32 power play points in this past season were assists on Ovechkin goals alone. Again, other teams do not have an Ovechkin to help out anybody’s power play numbers.

Rectangular Peg, Square Hole

For the New Jersey Devils specifically, they have a need to improve the defense. However, they do not have a lack of right-side defenseman. The team acquired Vatanen last season to join a group of Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Mirco Mueller, and Steve Santini. The need is on the left side. Andy Greene is not getting younger or better whilst the coaching staff continues to bury him with tough zone starts and matchups. John Moore is a pending UFA and has been a colander on defense during his New Jersey tenure. There’s hope that Will Butcher can emerge into a larger role. Even if he does, the Devils would still need to find a replacement for Greene’s role in the lineup.

Based on the stats presented earlier, Carlson is not a top pairing defenseman. Again, Niskanen was the top pairing defenseman in Washington and posted better on-ice numbers in three seasons. Carlson was better but not significantly more than Vatanen or Severson. Is he an upgrade on both? Yes. Enough to justify paying him $2-3 million more than either and until Carlson turns 35? Not really. Neither may produce as many points, but Carlson’s on-ice and relative rate stats in 5-on-5 play suggest that he’s not going to be that much better - it could even be worse. He wasn’t in Washington behind Niskanen.

Plus, obtaining Carlson would almost force the Devils’ hand to use him on the power play to help justify a potentially large contract. This could mean Will Butcher gets pushed down to the second unit and another defensemen who could work a power play like Vatanen (who has a great slapshot or Severson would be shut out. Or it could mean the first unit uses two defensemen, which gets away from what the Devils have been trying to do for years on their power play. That’s a lot to change to accommodate a large contract. The Devils’ power play has issues, but I don’t think it is with who is at the blueline.

Sure, the Devils could pay a lot of money to sign Carlson and then trade one of the extra right-handed defensemen to get that Andy Greene replacement. I think one of the common thoughts has been to try to move Severson in a package for someone. (Who? I don’t know. Oliver Ekman-Larsson?) But what’s stopping the Devils from doing that now. Without committing a lot of money and term to Carlson, they could still put a package together with Severson for a trade and just roll with Vatanen, Mueller/Santini, and Lovejoy as the right-side of the blueline for 2018-19. Signing Carlson is not necessary to make such a move possible, regardless of whether it is a move worth making.

CJ summed it up well for this part, so I’ll repeat his main point. The Devils shouldn’t sacrifice value to improve their defense. Trying to fit a rectangular peg trying to be fit into a square hole does not make the best sense; Carlson does not really address the need that the Devils have and trying to accommodate him would require more than cap space and approval from ownership for the money.

Conclusion: Buyer Beware

My main point is not that Carlson is bad. He’s had an amazing season, he’s having a great postseason, and he does bring a lot of talent to the table. With the pending free agent market plus all that Carlson is right now, it appears likely that he could be come one of the highest-paid defensemen in the NHL. He could be the ninth defender to carry a cap hit of at least $7 million. The main point is that outside of how many points he put up - which were boosted greatly by the Washington power play - Carlson is a not a first-pairing caliber defenseman like the highest-paid defensemen are today.

When he steps on the ice, the 5-on-5 play does not always get better for Washington - it has been worse to a degree. And his on-ice rates are hardly dominant outside of shooting the puck and producing points in 2017-18. He has not been so much better in 5-on-5 play than even Vatanen or Severson. He has not been the best right-handed defenseman on the Capitals; Matt Niskanen has been better than him in each of the last three seasons. Carlson has not been the best PK defender on the Capitals in the last three seasons either. If Washington’s power play did not have a future Hall of Famer in Ovechkin and maybe-Hall of Famer in Backstrom, would he still be so dominant on the power play? That it is a question puts further lie to the notion that Carlson is a top-pairing defenseman. Can he play in all situations? Yes. Has he been exceptional? Outside of the power play and the scoresheet, no.

Additionally, please recall that Carlson is 28. It is entirely possible that we just saw his peak season. I’d hate to be the team to sign him to a big deal and hope he can crack 60 points again or can continue to play the minutes that he has been as he gets older. Sure, he’ll be productive but it is doubtful he’ll lead the league again. And it’s deepens the question of whether he can really be a first-pairing defenseman somewhere else. Sure, Vatanen didn’t have those qualities, but that does not mean the Devils should try to repeat that move with a player who is not really worth $2 to 3 million more per year than what Vatanen currently makes.

Sure, I understand that some players could take on larger roles or contribute much more but cannot due to players rightly or wrongly ahead of them on the depth chart. The 2017-18 Vegas team seems to be a testament to the fact that a lot of guys. Still, a potential $50+ million, seven year contract is a very big bet to make in the hopes that Carlson can be a first-pairing defenseman if given the chance. He did not force the issue in Washington during what is likely the peak years of his career. He might get his opportunity wherever he signs. But it would be a huge risk for the Devils to undertake. I do not think it is worth taking given that Carlson does not address the real need on defense, he’s not likely to repeat his production next season or even ever again, he’s likely to start declining as player in a few years, his 5-on-5 stats do not bode well for a team that could use help in 5-on-5 play, and the right-side of the blueline can be more than fine with Vatanen and Severson as-is.

If the Devils want to splash the cash and make a big signing, then go all out for John Tavares. He actually has proven that he is one of the best in his position in the entire NHL and he fits one of the glaring needs of the current roster. If the Devils want to make a big trade to get the big-minute, left-handed defenseman they actually need to strengthen their blueline, then they have assets to work with now.

I know he grew up in Colonia and started playing youth hockey in New Jersey, he’s had a great 2017-18 campaign, and he plays a position that fans have identified as something the team needs help in. I get the excitement. But it would not be a good fit at all and Carlson is not all that special outside of the points. The Devils need to be judicious as they try to keep the team competitive for 2018-19 and beyond. They should stay away from signing John Carlson to a big contract that he will likely not be able to fully justify. For the other 29 teams (Washington knows who he is), I have two words for you: Buyer beware.