NHL Predictions: Each Team's Player Under the Most Pressure in the 2nd Half

PJ Sapienza@@pjsapiContributor IIIFebruary 11, 2011

NHL Predictions: Each Team's Player Under the Most Pressure in the 2nd Half

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    The second half of the NHL season is always bound to be full of excitement but this year looks to even more so.

    The race for the playoffs in the West is crazy close with 14 teams all having a legitimate shot at the playoffs.  Now when I say legitimate, it isn’t the case where fans of one team are hoping for a hot eight or ten game streak just to be in the hunt.  No, because in the West there are eleven teams separated by only nine points.  A seemingly innocent two game losing streak could knock a team from 6th  to 11th in the standings. 

    While the East does not have as many teams bunched up as tightly, there are six teams vying for the last two playoffs spots.  In addition the teams higher up in the standings are battling for division titles and more importantly home ice in the playoffs.  In each of the East divisions 1st and 2nd are separated

     by 3 points or less.

    All of this means tons of pressure on all of the players, but which players does the spot light burn a little brighter on? 

    Even the teams not in the playoff hunt have pressure, so here is a list of each team and their player under the most pressure for the second half of the season.

Anaheim

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    The goalie situation for the Ducks is a major concern. All star goaltender Jonas Hiller has been placed on IR with fatigue.

    Last season Hiller faded down the stretch.  His GAA went up and his save percentage went down.  Of his 3 shutouts last year none came after February 2nd and only twice after that date did he hold a team

    to one goal.

    Going into this season the plan was to lessen Hiller’s workload so that he would be strong and rested come playoff time.  While he is behind last years game pace it isn’t enough as he has now hit the IR due to fatigue issues.

    The pressure now falls on backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.  Not only must he play well while Hiller is the mend but once back, McElhinney must be ready to handle a larger workload.  He has started off in the right direction with posting a 3-0 win over Colorado on Tuesday night. 

    His career stats are only 13-18-4 with a 2.99 GAA.  He will need to greatly improve on those number in order to help the Ducks in the battle royal that is the Western Conference playoff race.

Atlanta

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    At one point this season the Thrashers actually lead the Southeast Division now they have fallen to 9th place in the East.

    Dustin Byfuglien has felt the pressure intensify as the team has slid down the standings.  He has only one point over the last 14 games..  In that span the team has gone 3-7-4.

    What is even more of a concern is that despite  his lack of production he still is tied for the team lead in goals with 17 and still leads the team in points.  Other players have failed to step up while Byfuglien has been in this draught.

    Beyond the concern ovr the decline in his offensive numbers has been his struggles on defense.  Over this 14 game stretch his plus/minus rating of -8.  Thrasher coach Craig Ramsey had a meeting with him earlier in the week, while it did end the goal scoring draught it didn’t help the defensive play.  A costly and weak 3rd period giveaway allowed Toronto an easy game winning goal.

    If the Thrashers are to find their early season stride and make the playoffs then Byfuglien will need to return to form and quickly.

Boston

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    Boston sits 3rd in the East and 1st  in the Northeast Division.  Everything seemed to be lining up well for a long playoff run then Marc Savard took a hard hit which has lead to a season ending concussion.

    While the last two season have been marred by injury, Savard has proven to be a point a game player in the past.  Now the question is who fills that void.

    While the team is looking at Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron to help fill the void, their likely placement will be filling the spot of another player already on the regular roster who steps into Savard’s role.

    David Krejci has made it known that he wants to be the guy to fill that role.  However he is in he midst of a 19 game goalless streak.  Krejci has put the pressure fully on himself now to come through for the team.

    Regardless of how well Krejci plays, do expect the Bruins to be busy as the trade deadline approaches.

Buffalo

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    Buffalo sits in 10th place, only 3 points out of the final playoff spot.

     

    There are a few candidates on the Sabres for the pressure spot as fingers could be pointed at Craig Rivet, Rob Niedermayer and Andrej Sekera for underperforming this year however Tim Connolly with his $4.5 million salary earns the honor.

     

    Connolly is on pace for his worst season.  He recently ended a 12 game scoreless skid.  The hope is that by now scoring in back to back games the 2nd

    line center can provide the scoring punch the team needs to fight for a playoff spot.

Calgary

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    An impressive 13-3-4 run has placed the Flames into the 8th spot out West.  They have done this despite

    one of the star players struggling through a slump.

     Rene Bourque was given a big six year contract and with that comes some expectations of production.  While even he has admitted that the team’s recent success has taken some of the pressure of off him he also knows for the team to truly compete he needs to do more.  He has only three goals, six points and a bad minus-5 rating during his last 23 games.  He finally broke an eight game goalless streak by hitting an empty netter to finish off the Blackhawks on Monday. 

    Will that be the goal that jump starts him?  Only time will tell, but as the season winds down and the race for the playoffs gets even closer, all eyes will be on Bourque to see if he can come through.

Carolina

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    Carolina recently overtook Atlanta for the 8th and final playoff spot.  Sitting in that spot adds a

    ton of pressure to the entire team.  Their recent spell of 4-5-1 doesn’t give much confidence in a great run.

    Jeff Skinner has had an amazing rookie campaign.  He has already scored 20 goals to go along with 23 assist through 54 games.  The pressure will fall on him though as people who wonder if the kid can not just keep the pace he has been on, but can he pick it up when the team needs him most down the stretch.

    Will he hit the rookie wall?  Will the intensity of a playoff  race be much on the 18 year old?  They way he has played so far it is doubtful but any rough patch that he hits now will be magnified.

Chicago

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    The defending Stanley Cup Champs have not looked good this year.  Many point to the rollover from last years squad which saw 10 players leave.  Most due to salary cap issues.

    One of the biggest additions to last year’s squad was Marian Hossa.  After going to, and losing the previous two Stanley Cup Finals with Pittsburgh then Detroit, Hossa finally got over the hump last season with the Blackhawks.  Perhaps the relief of finally winning has taken away his urgency as he is one pace for his worst season since his rookie year.

    The once 40+ goal scoring wing hasn’t had an even strength goal on over a month.  If Chicago is going to make a run into the playoffs then Hossa will need to step up his game.

Colorado

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    Listen…can you hear it?   They are singing in Denver, “He’s back, he’s back, he is coming back”

    The return of Peter Forsberg has the Avalanche faithful hopeful that he can lift the team out of their current rut and into the playoffs.

    The problem is that Forsberg hasn’t been in an NHL game in three years, combined with his injury history and it is not going to be a happy ending for the Avalanche. 

    Once Forsberg does hit the ice, which keeps getting delayed due to visa issues, all eyes will be on him.  Can he return to his former stellar form?  Can he stay healthy?  Even if he does play great and the team continues to falter will he be called on do to even more?   It is a no win situation for Forsberg, who likely will end up watching more games from the training room then he plays in.

Columbus

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    The Blue Jackets are in the hunt to make only the second playoff appearance in the franchises ten year existence.  They started the season hot going 14-6-0 but a 3-9-3 swoon saw them plummet down the standings.   They have since shown life and are among the batch of teams fighting for a spot in the playoffs.

    Kristian Huselius has been a consistent 20+ point scorer for most of his career and has averaged 40 assist over the last four seasons.  This season his numbers have  dropped to eleven goals and only eight assist .  He recently went through a spell where he only had one goal over a 13 game stretch.  This resulted in Blue Jacket coach, Scott Arniel, to make Huselius a healthy scratch.

    Then benching seemed to help his game as Huselius netted two goals in his return.  If the Blue Jackets are to have any chance of making the playoff then the pressure in on Huselius to find his game again.

Dallas

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    Dallas is in an odd situation.  In the standings they are doing well as they lead the Pacific division and sit in the 3rd seed with 65 points.  However a recent 5-5 spell has allowed the streaking San Jose

    Sharks and Phoenox Coyotes to close the gap.

    Off the ice the team is in ownership limbo, the front office is somewhat handcuffed in making long term contract deals and their best player, Brad Richards, will be a free agent this off season.

    While contract talks have been going on there isn’t any real signs as to what will happen.  This leaves Richards in the pressure spot for the team.  In order for the Stars to have a strong close to the season they will need Richards to not only be there but be focused as well.

    On top of all that, the Stars have been hit with the injury bug of late, which means that while their depth is depleted, players like Richards will need to step up their game even more.

    With prolonged contract talks and whispers of trades surrounding him, Richards will have the pressure to maintain his game on the ice.  The question is will it be to help the Stars, to help another team or to showcase his talents for another big contract this off season.

Detroit

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    The three toughest jobs in sports:  The ace pitcher for the New York Yankees, the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and the #1 goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings.  Jimmy Howard sits in the pressure filled net for the Wings.

    In a season that has been marred with several injuries to key players the Red Wins have still manage to grab the 2nd seed in the West with 70 points. Despite losing the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas

     Holmstrom, Brad Stuart, Dan Cleary and  Mike Madano  the biggest injury may be the one to Chris Osgood.

    With Osgood healthy the Red Wings had a proven goaltender to fill in for Howard when needed.  The second year starter Howard has seen his number slip from last year.  While is win total is among the league leaders his GAA and save % are as good.  He has battled some injuries himself but without Osgood the safety net is gone.

    The Wings tried to bring Evgeni Nabokov to help out but he was claimed off waivers by the Islanders.  This has left the Wings to go with Joey MacDonald as Howard’s backup.  Macdonald’s career numbers of 19-42 with a 3.25 GAA does not instill much confidence in his ability to lighten the burden on Howard.

    Therefore the pressure will not only be on Howard to play better in goal but also to take on a heavier workload as the season winds down.

    In Detroit simply making the playoffs is never enough.

Edmonton

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    The Oilers are the only team in the West that is not apart of the playoff chase.  While this means that players don’t have the pressure of a playoff chase there is still the pressure of losing and perhaps more importantly, the pressure of a pay day.

    At 26 Ryan Jones will be a free agent after the season.  While not lighting the league on fire, the 4th line

    player has come through with a solid season setting career highs in goals and points.  As the season winds down a strong finish could mean a better contract offer in the off season.

Florida

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    The Panthers are on the outside looking in right now.  The sit seven points outside of a playoff spot and need to jump three teams in order to secure the final playoff spot.

    The Panthers are 20th in the league in scoring.  The need people to find the back of the net more.  One

    player that needs to fill that roll is Michael Frolik.  After scoring 21 goals and over 40 points in each of his first two seasons, Frolik was expected to be a point producer for the team.

    His assist are still there and he should blow past his career high in that area.  But he is on pace to score only 12 goals this year. a year in which some thought that he could get 30.  He recently ended a 12 game scoreless steak.

    If he can turn it around and produce on a more consistent basis, then the Panthers will have a chance at climbing into the playoffs.

Los Angeles

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    Like just about every other team in the West, the Kings find themselves in the midst of one tight playoff race.

    The team is only middle of the pack in goal scoring but with Jonathan Quick in net they have the one of the best keepers in the league this year.

    The concern for Quick is last season.  He had an incredible workload last season which resulted in him tiring towards the end of the season in which he had 70 starts.

    The plan this season was for him to get 6o starts.  As of now he is on pace for that.  Will the extra rest payoff and can Jonathan Bernier perform when he is called upon to give Quick a rest? 

    The real pressure here will be on coach Terry Murray, if Bernier falters will he put too much pressure and workload on Quick?

Minnesota

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    Minnesota needs some scoring punch to help this defensive minded team.  That punch needs to

    come from Guillaume Latendresse.  He has been out since October 25th with a groin injury and the Wild

    desperately need him back and fast.

    He has been skating and eyeing a return in the next few weeks.  If the Wild are to move up from their current 10th spot in the standings then they will need Latendresse to return and fast.

    The pressure will be on him not only to come back as quickly as possible but to pickup where he left off last year.  He was a pleasant surprise last year, his first with the team, when he scored 25 goals in only 55 games.  While it may bit much asking  him to equal that pace after missing nearly four months, the pressure will be on him to come close.

Montreal

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    Montreal is in the thick of the hunt of East.  They sit 6th in the standings but are also only two points behind the division leading Bruins and their 3rd seed.  After a bad December the Canadiens have made a

     steady climb up the standings.

    PK Subban seems to have a bulls eye on him.  The rookie defender is having a very good season.  The gifted defender has also raised a few eyebrows around the league for his style of play and excitement he shows.

    Not only will he have the normal rookie pressure of not hitting the rookie wall but he will also have to keep an eye out for veteran players who have been offended by his play.

Nashville

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    The Predators have two big wins in the last week where they have soundly beat the Red Wings.  The combined score from those two games was 7-1.

    The center position in Nashville isn’t very deep and with the unknown injury to Marcel Groc it may be even shallower for awhile.  David Legwand was drafted by the Predators to be a high impact point producer.  While he has been good defensively he offensive numbers have never reached the levels that team has hoped for.

    During the offseason management challenged his to take his game to the next level.  While he hasn’t been as good as he can be he has improved.  Injuries keep slowing him down.  He only scored 11 goals over 82 games last year, he has 8 this year but has only played in 37 of the teams 55 games.  The pressure is on him to not only produce at a higher level but also to stay healthy.

New Jersey

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    The Devils had a rough start to the season.  At one point they were 27 points behind the final playoff spot, now they are 15.  While the 10-1-2 run over the last 13 games is impressive it may be too late for them to make the playoffs.

    Regardless of well he does or doesn’t play the pressure is always going to be on IIya Kovalchuk.  That’s what happens when you sign a $100 million contract.

    He has been a point a game player throughout his career however this year the numbers just haven’t been there as he has just 35 points through 53 games.  On the plus side he does have six points over the last five games.  Over that span his plus/minus has improved to -23.  Obviously there is a need to improve that even more, but at least he is headed in the right direction.  He has never done well in the plus/minus category but after his first two seasons in the league he averaged a -7 over his next seven.

     If the Devils are to continue their charge up the standings then Kovalchuk must return to his previous usual point producing force.  He has been taking double shifts and focusing on playing both ends of the ice, so maybe his run over the last few games will become the norm again.

New York Islanders

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    To say the Islanders are a mess right now is the ultimate understatement.  They have lost a mind boggling 336 man-games to injury.  How bad is it?  They have had five goalies start in net, six be on their roster and a seventh who will not even report to the team.  Everyone thought Evgeni Nabokov refused to report after signing because he had his heart set on playing on a contender in Detroit.  It appears he didn’t report for his own safety.

    The Islanders are last in the East and sit 17 points out of the final playoff spot.  On the bright side this means that there isn’t any pressure of being apart of the playoff chase.

    While you don’t want to see a player only playing for themselves, in a contract year it can happen.  With not much else to play for this season, PA Parenteau is playing for his first big payday.  In his first full season on an NHL roster he has played his way up to the first line.

    Through 52 games he has 13 goals to go along with 20 assist.  The pressure will be on him to finish the season strong.  Of course the Islanders are watching but other teams will be keeping an eye on him as well.  The stronger he finishes the season the larger his contract offers will be this summer.

New York Rangers

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    The Rangers are in the battle for the final few playoff spots in the East.  They currently hold the 7th

    position.  The team has went through a rough patch of late going 3-6-1 over their last ten

    games and even had their all star goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, benched for two games.

    The team has struggled offensively and the finger pointing starts with Marian Gaborik.  He signed a large contract prior to last season and responded with a 42 goal, 86 point season.  The team and fans were hoping to see that and more this season but Gaborik hasn’t been able keep pace.  He has netted only 16 goals and 34 points. 

    Coach John Tortorella has mentioned on several occasions this year how the team need Gaborik to step up his play.  He has even been benched a few times.

    The pressure is Gaborik to not only live up to that contract but to help right the Rangers ship and lead them into the playoffs.

Ottawa

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    With the trade Mike Fisher for draft picks the rebuilding project for Ottawa has officially begun.  The team sits 13th in the East with 42 points.  They have only one win in the last 18 games.

    When a team is doing this bad there a many culprits but when one is making $3.7 million and has only produced five points then the pressure is surely being felt by Filip Kuba.

    While never a big goal scorer in his career this defenseman has zero for the season.  His five assist are far below his average of 23 over the past nine seasons.  The most glaring stat though is his -23 rating.

    The Senators would love to trade him as he still has another year left on his contract  and  at this point it would be shocking if somebody wanted him.   Kuna is going to have to step it up.

Philadelphia

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    The Flyers sit atop the East right now with 75 points.  They have done this with a potent scoring offense.  Their goals per game average of 3.35 leads the league.

    The goalie play has been solid as they have rotated between Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher throughout the season.   The team has been trying to slowly bring the rookie Bobrovsky on throughout the season in hopes that he will be ready to stand tall come playoff time.

    The pressure is now on him to produce.  So far in 33 games he has 22 wins, a 2.48 gaa and .918 save percentage.  The question is can he finish strong down the stretch which will allow the team to have confidence in him once the playoffs start.

Phoenix

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    The Coyotes are another one of the teams out West in that pile up for the playoffs.  They are tied for the 5th spot right now.  While they are only a point away from first place in the Pacific Division they are also only four points up on the 9th place team.

    Michal Rozsival first month with the Coyotes hasn’t gone as planned.  After being trade to the team last month it took him seven games to record a hit.  With the Rangers he was often the target of fan backlash as his play didn’t live up to his large contract. Rozsival is half way through a four year $24 million contract. 

    With the injury to Ed Javanovski, Rozsival will be expected to step up his game and help out on the blue line.

Pittsburgh

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    Losing Sidney Crosby was a blow to the team but losing Evgeni Malkin is devastating.  Despite being the media darling and superstar with the amazing moves Crosby is not the team MVP.  Without him the team was able to go 8-4-1 and maintain the 4th spot in the East.  Without Malkin, the true MVP of the team,

     they lost their first two games  by a combined score of 7-1.  The streak was finally snapped on Thursday with a 2-1 win over the Kings.

    Jordan Staal, the player who scored the game winning goal to end the streak, is the player under the most pressure for the Penguins. He has spent most of the season recovering first form foot surgery then from a broken hand.

    The Penguins need him to quickly start helping out on the offensive end while maintaining his traditional tough defense and excellent penalty killing prowess.

San Jose

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    The sharks have been on a tear of late going 9-0-1 and catching Dallas atop the Pacific Division.  One of the main reasons for the dominance has been the play of goalie Antti Niemi.

    Now you wouldn’t think the defending Stanley Cup goalie would feel the most pressure on a team, but when the team you won the cup for dumps you after the season. Pressure….and revenge play a major role in how you play.

    During this recent Ten game span Niemi has been on a roll posting a 2.06 GAA and if the one bad game he had against Phoenix is factored out, then his GAA drops to a dominating 1.64.  He will be under pressure to finish the season strong.   The last two games of the season are against Phoenix who right now is only one point behind the Sharks.  Based on the craziness of the standings right now those two games could decide everything from the Division title, home iced or even which one even makes the playoffs.

St Louis

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    The Blues are hanging around the playoff chase but until a recent three game surge they appeared to be falling apart.

    One of the reasons for their surge is the return of Andy McDonald.  He has only played 28 games for the Blue this season and they are in need of his help.  While he hasn’t scored a goal since his return he does have two assist and is +3.  The team needs his to return to his 30+ goal scoring efforts of a few years ago in order for them to make a push into the playoffs.

Tampa Bay

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    Tampa has been one of the highest scoring teams all season.  Early on though their goalie situation wasn’t the greatest.

     Welcome Dwayne Roloson. 

     Traded to the team on January 1st he quickly made an impact when he  

    posted a 1-0 shutout win in his first game.   Since then he has been very streaky.  In 13 games with the

     team he already has an impressive four shutouts.  In those same 13 games he has also given up four or more goals five times.

    In order for Tampa to be taken seriously for the rest of the season the pressure in Roloson to give the team consistent effort game after game.  Shutting out the Capitals to help your team earn two points doesn’t mean much when the next gave you give up five goals to the Devils, therefore coughing up those same two points.

Toronto

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    Toronto sits seven points out of the final playoff spot.

    Phil Kessel stirred a bit of a controversy earlier in the weak, one that at least until the trade deadline passes will put the spotlight on him.

    Stuck in a scoring slump he had been demoted by coach Ron Wilson to the 3rd line.  It didn’t help and

     in his frustrating  uttered the phrase “maybe it’s not working out here”

    Toronto was ablaze with Kessel want out of town talk.  It made matters worse when he said the he and Wilson didn’t talk.

    Kessel has tried to clear things up by explaining that he loves Toronto and doesn’t want to leave but instead meant that the line he was on wasn’t working out.  In addition he clarified that he and Wilson hadn’t talked about the slump.

    Team GM Brian Burke claims he is not trading Kessel who has scored 19 goals this season and is 5th

     on the team with 35 points.  If Kessel is staying then he certainly needs to break this scoring slump and even more so show that he love Toronto and the team, because all eyes will be on him and likely many trade rumors over the next few weeks.

Vancouver

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    When you have the best record in the league it is hard to point to a pressure spot.  One would think that the team is lining itself up for a long playoff run.

    However a rash of recent injuries to the defense has the team scrambling.  Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Lee Sweatt and Alex Edler are all injured.

    In comes the return of Sami Salo.  Salo was the team’s best all around defender last year and with all of the injuries will be expected to pick up where he left off.  Salo has missed the entire season this far as he recoups from an Achilles injury.  After a three game stint in the AHL he has been called up and should see his first action for the Canucks this week.

    If Vancouver is to maintain their top spot than Salo will not only have to come through on his own but also help bring along rookie Chris Tanev as well as the rest of the defensive unit.

Washington

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    With scores such as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on the team the Capitals shouldn’t have to worry about scoring.  Michal Neuvirth is playing good in goal.

    With the Penguins rash of injuries the Capitals have a chance to overtake them in the standings.  They will need a strong effort from their defense to do that.

    In his first full season, John Carlson has shown that he is ready to be a top defensemen.  Last season in 22 games he managed an impressive +11 rating.  Now in his second season he has been able to be +13 while chipping in 22 points.  That high of a plus/minus rating for a young defensemen is a sign of great things to come.

    A recent injury to fellow blue liner Mike Green put the pressure on Carlson to stand tall for the team.  He responded by logging 26 hard minutes in a 2-0 loss to the Sharks.  To help Washington move up in the standings Carlson will need to continue to show that he is not only ready to be in the NHL but ready to excel.