Why John Carlson Is the Washington Capitals' Next Breakout Star

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Why John Carlson Is the Washington Capitals' Next Breakout Star
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With the fate of the 2012-2013 NHL season seemingly going to be decided within the next week, if not sooner (ESPN), fans everywhere brace for impact, whatever that impact might be.

Assuming the NHL and NHLPA are not really going to be dumb enough to blow away a second season in eight years over roughly $5 million in salary cap space and, essentially, a one-year difference over length of contracts, it looks like we would have a 48-game NHL season beginning on January 19, 2013.

For fans of the Washington Capitals, they will finally get to see their team hit the ice again. They will also get to see what sort of team takes to the ice and how it will respond to new head coach Adam Oates—all of it happening in a 48-game sprint to the playoffs.

With the Caps, there has never been a shortage of star power. Over the years, D.C. has been home to one of the very best in the game, Alexander Ovechkin. Add in players like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green and the Caps were a relative collection of stars and players all looking to leave their mark on the NHL.

True, Ovechkin was always looked at as being a can't-miss prospect. But Backstrom, Semin and Green, more or less, burst upon the scene somewhat unexpectedly. This was particularly true as far as Mike Green was concerned who registered back-to-back 70-point-plus seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-2010, establishing a new standard for two-way defensemen in the process.

Entering this new era for the Caps, many fans have to be wondering if lightning will strike again. Which player on the Caps roster has the most potential to be their next breakout star?

There are a few solid candidates in this area.

Braden Holtby looks to be on the verge of becoming an elite level NHL goalie.

Marcus Johansson has all sorts of potential, as does Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera.

But as for the player I am really looking at to be the next breakout star for the Washington Capitals, I have my eyes set on another Caps blue liner—John Carlson.

John Carlson scores to tie Game 3 of the Caps Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Rangers from last spring

Re-signing Carlson, who turns 23 on January 10, was one of the Caps' priorities in the offseason as he was a restricted free agent. That mission was accomplished just hours before the lockout went into effect when the Caps inked Carlson to a six-year, $23.8 million contract extension (Washington Post).

Obviously, the Caps saw something special in Carlson, and they should. So why do I feel Carlson is the next breakout star for the Caps?

Here are some reasons.

 

A Proven Winner

If you look at Carlson's résumé so far, you have to be impressed by the fact that success seems to follow him wherever he goes.

We are talking about a man who was a member of the 2008 USHL All-Rookie team, the Canadian Major Junior All-Rookie team in 2009, the AHL All-Rookie team in 2010 and the NHL All-Rookie team in 2011. Those are some very impressive individual accolades made even more impressive when one notes the consistency within which they were obtained.

From a team standpoint, Carlson has shown that he is not just a proven winner, but that he can deliver in crunch time as well.

Carlson was a member of the 2008-2009 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears. He had two goals, one assist and a plus-three rating during the Bears' playoff run that spring.

But it was in 2010 that Carlson showed what a Midas touch he might actually have.

John Carlson scores the OT winner for Team USA in one of the best Junior Hockey championship games you will ever see

During the 2010 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, it was Carlson who scored the gold medal-winning goal—in overtime no less—as Team USA beat Team Canada 6-5.

Just a few months later Carlson, who had been drafted 27th overall by the Caps in the 2008 NHL draft, was brought up. His first NHL playoff goal would be a memorable one. In Game 2 of the Caps' now infamous series against the Montreal Canadiens, Carlson's goal with just over a minute left in the game capped a furious rally and sent the game to overtime. The Caps would eventually win that game, but lose the series in a colossal upset.

Three months later, Carlson would score his first playoff goal in dramatic fashin to tie Game 2 of the Caps series with the Canadiens

Carlson would then return to the AHL and would go on to score the Calder Cup winning goal in Game 6 of the Bears' series with the Texas Stars.

Now that is what I call a good year.

In the 2012 NHL playoffs, Carlson was as solid as they come and he and Karl Alzner did a wonderful job at neutralizing the best players the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers could throw at them.

Simply put, John Carlson does not know how to lose. I expect that winning attitude to shine through brightly whenever hockey ultimately returns.

 

A Fresh Start

John Carlson did not have a very good regular season last year, not at all.

On the positive side of things, he did have a career high nine goals last year.

On the rather negative side of the fence though, he had a pretty dreadful minus-15 efficiency rating.

Carlson was much better during the playoffs though as he played tough, grinding hockey, had only a minus-one rating and he tallied five points.

But Carlson seems more inclined to play like a true two-way defender and the style of play being implemented by then coach Dale Hunter was not exactly amenable to the up-tempo style of game that might be more suited to Carlson's skill set.

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Enter new coach, Adam Oates. Oates is expected to bring a more uptempo style of game to D.C., and this could very well set the stage for great things for Carlson.

In many ways, Carlson could very well be like a thoroughbred that is about to be turned loose. If Oates decides to play a looser defensive style that focuses on transitioning quickly from offense to defense, this should take advantage of Carlson's natural ability to move the puck and his numbers should increase quite a bit.

There is no question that Carlson learned a ton about how to play defense better with Dale Hunter as his coach, and that was evident during the playoffs last spring.

I expect his time with Oates to really refine how he plays as a two-way defender. He might not put up Mike Green like numbers from 2008-09 and 2009-2010—but I expect to see a big improvement and a big jump in production.

 

The Right Stuff

The real reason I think you will see Carlson break out this year, though, is that he has a fantastic skill set that is tailor made for the team I think the Caps will be and for which Carlson can most excel.

If you really want to explore John Carlson, in depth, than an excellent place to go is to this article posted at japersrink.com. It is an excellent recap of Carlson's season last year. Certain points noted in that article shed some light as to why John Carlson is a star in the making.

A humorous look at the Caps top defensive pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner

Purely from a defensive standpoint, Carlson was consistently being matched up against the toughest competition possible. This was something we saw with great frequency during the playoffs. Yet Carlson excelled in these situations. It is a sign of his maturity and his evolving game.

Caps fans also have to be impressed, and encouraged, by the fact that Carlson led the team in blocked shots and was the most productive of the Caps defenders when the team was at even strength.

It must also be stressed that Carlson is one of the most durable players on the Caps roster as he played in all 82 games for the second season in a row.

Now, understandably, much has been made of the problems Carlson had during the 2011-2012 regular season, particularly the minus-15 rating he posted. But to use that as a basis for pessimism would be to ignore the tremendous playoff run that Carlson actually had.

Take a closer look at the japersrink.com article and it shows just what a force Carlson was during the playoffs. He had the most shifts of any player on the Caps, offense or defense. He led the team in blocked shots and led the defense in hits and shots. Carlson also led the defense in scoring during the playoffs.

He was third on the team in shorthanded time on the ice and led the team in power play points, even though he had quite a bit less power play time than other defenders, such as Mike Green or Dennis Wideman.

The japersrink.com recap summed it up very nicely as follows:

In short, during the playoffs Carlson was everything the Caps (and their fans) expected him to be all year. He was a beast in all three zones, in all three phases of the game.

John Carlson, simply stated, has it all. He has all the skills necessary to be an elite defenseman. He is a tremendous shot blocker, loves to hit, moves the puck very well and has a very good shot.

Take all that, combine it with the fact that the guy just knows how to win and let Adam Oates help him to refine his game further and we could be seeing something very special happening to Carlson.

We could be seeing the emergence of the next great star for the Washington Capitals.

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