Capitals' John Carlson has potential to be top D-man

Rookie defenseman John Carlson finally found the back of the net Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, but Washington Capitals fans shouldn’t be surprised if he continues to light the goal lamp.

Carlson was the team’s top prospect heading into the season, but it seemed as if he was several years away from making it to the NHL. He progressed quickly during development camp and was called up by the team in November. While it was only a three-game stint, he showed he could keep up with the speed of the game.

Even though he was not sent down to the American Hockey League, he stayed productive. Since he was not traveling with Washington, he was eligible to participate in the World Junior Hockey Championships and represent Team USA. He was clearly one of the best players in the tournament and showed his skill in the gold medal game. With the game between Team USA and Team Canada tied in overtime, Carlson took the puck up the ice and fired a wrist shot home for the game winner.

The game showed Washington had a defenseman who could potentially be better than Mike Green. Green is one of the best in the league but Carlson has the whole package. He has a heavy shot from the point, can make plays, sees the whole ice and can play solid defense.

Seeing what they had, Washington was quick to call him up again in early January. Despite it being yet another short stay, Carlson was able to record his first NHL point against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It is one thing to score your first NHL point; it is another to do it against the franchise’s most hated rival. Much like his last stint with the team, he was sent back to the AHL even though he was productive.

Carlson didn’t stay in the minors for long and on March 3 he was called up one more time — this time for good. Since then he has played in 11 games, recorded four points and is a +6.

The young blueliner from Massachusetts was productive in his first nine games, but the first time he flashed his full ability was against the Pittsburgh Penguins last Wednesday. While he didn’t record a point, Carlson looked like one of the team’s best defensemen. Even though it wasn’t a goal, he had one of the team’s best scoring chances of the game when a shot from the point rang off the side of the post. Even though Head Coach Bruce Boudreau thought he only had a decent game, he trusted him enough to give him two shifts in overtime.

Perhaps more interesting than his performance was what the 20-year-old had to say about it. When asked about the near miss, he sounded more like a grizzled veteran who knew it would eventually go his way than a young rookie itching to score.

“I just gotta stick with it, and I am getting chances so that’s a good sign,” Carlson said. “I just have to keep positive and keep going at it.”

He certainly kept with it, and it paid off the very next night. Down one goal in the third period, Carlson skated up the ice and called for the puck from Jason Chimera. He took the pass between the circles and fired his heavy wrist shot home for the equalizer.

It may just be one goal, but it certainly shows that he not only has the poise, but the hockey smarts to score in the NHL. Most guys call for the puck when they are wide open. For Carlson to call for it when he did shows he has confidence in his abilities and knows when he can score. For a team like Washington, a player who knows when to shoot and when to pass is important.

One of the biggest criticisms of Green is that he is too offensive-minded and doesn’t know when he can’t score. As a result, Green coughs up a lot of turnovers and gives away goals. Carlson has the ability to have the offensive production of Green, but also to have better defensive numbers.

Obviously, it is early in Carlson’s career, so there is no way to know what the future holds for him. He is nowhere close to being the same kind of player as Green right now, but if his last 10 games are a preview of his career, he certainly could be. There has been no word on whether or not Carlson will be with the team in the playoffs, but there is no reason why he shouldn’t be on the roster. If Carlson is in fact with the team in the playoffs, don’t be surprised if that shot of his doesn’t find the back of the net more than a few times.

You can reach this staff writer at atomlinson@theeagleonline.com.

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