The NHL's best and worst this week: Inside John Carlson's hot start

Alex Ovechkin doesn’t just believe his team’s No. 1 defenseman, John Carlson, should win his first Norris Trophy. The Washington Capitals captain kicked off an all-out blitz campaign as the team toured Western Canada this week. It began with Ovechkin declaring, in Calgary, that he had a preferred hashtag: #Johnny4Norris.

“That’s the hashtag right now,” Ovechkin said. “Let’s keep it going.”

It continued in Edmonton, when a reporter began asking a question about Carlson.

“Sorry,” Ovechkin said, interrupting the question. “John Norris.”

Carlson’s take on the extra attention from his teammates?

“They’re all over me all the time about it,” Carlson said in a phone interview this week. “I can’t say I like the attention, but I appreciate everyone standing up for me.”

Ovechkin’s campaign has its merits. The 29-year-old Carlson is blazing through October at a historic pace. “I’ve seen some pretty hot starts,” reigning Norris winner Mark Giordano told NHL.com this week, of Carlson. “But I’ve never seen something quite like this.”

Carlson not only leads defensemen, but he’s second among all skaters, with 21 points through 13 games. He’s on pace for 132 points this season. For context: in the last 30 years, the highest-scoring defensemen were Paul Coffey and Al MacInnis, both with 103-point seasons.

Carlson is also just four points shy from matching MacInnis’ 1990-91 record for points by a defenseman in October, with one game left (Tuesday at the Maple Leafs) to do it. Sixteen of Carlson’s points are assists; most of his production is at even strength, too. Only six of his points are from the power play.

“I’ve been playing well the last couple years,” Carlson said. “I don’t know if this year is too much different. I’m just getting good fortunate bounces, getting lucky a couple times. I think I made a lot of good plays, but this year the good plays that I make, the guys seem to be scoring on.”

Carlson isn’t necessarily shooting more; he’s on pace for about 177 shots; he had 185 last season and his career-high is 237, set in 2017-18. However, the quality of his chances may have improved thanks to a new system brought in by coach Todd Reirden. If you’ve watched the Capitals this season, they’ve looked a tad different than years past. “We’ve changed our style a bit,” Carlson said. “We’re in the learning process right now and we’re getting caught a little bit here or there, as expected, but overall everyone is sticking to it really well. We’re playing a little more up-tempo — a speed game that fits our team right now.”

As for how it affects the offense, well, they’re a bit more aggressive, for starters.

“We have a pretty specific attack in how to score goals in the offensive zone — never mind off the rush, that’s pretty cut and dry across the league,” Carlson said. “In the zone, we’re a little more aggressive with the D. We never really pinch down as much as we do now, pretty much in my whole career — except maybe when Bruce [Boudreau] was here, it was a little more aggressive. So that’s a big change. I think that brings us four or five feet closer to the net and opportunities to shoot or have a dangerous shot.”

One thing that constantly comes up in meetings: not harping on the quantity of shots, but rather the quality of shots.

“We talk about that all the time as a team,” Carlson said. “So sometimes that means passing up on certain shots that will have no effect on the goalie and maybe increase his confidence.”

Carlson has been one of the best defensemen in the league for some time. So it feels a bit unsavory that only now is he getting Norris attention because of his eye-popping offensive totals. Carlson says he’s not dismayed by it.

“It’s the constant debate that I hear when it comes to the Norris,” Carlson says. “This guy is only offensive, this guy is only defensive. In reality, it should be the best defenseman; take any team in the league, if they could choose a defenseman, that’s who it should be.”

When asked what he likes best about his game, he said: “I take pride in doing everything. I take pride in killing penalties and in what I do on the power play and at five-on-five. I play against a lot of top players on other teams, so that’s what I think of going into every game.”


Jump ahead:
Emptying the notebook | What we liked this week
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up


Emptying the notebook

I talked to Carlson on Friday afternoon before the team’s game against the Canucks that night. I bring this up, because the timing is important — and it makes Carlson look smart. I asked Carlson if he’s noticed any league-wide trends a few weeks into the season. Here’s his response: “Things feel more offensive. I don’t know statistically if there’s more goals, but it does feel like scoring has been up a little bit. Everyone is in every game, whether that is the first place team versus the last place team, or throughout a game the back-and-forth lead changes feel like it’s been a little more wide open than in years past. Anything can happen at any time against any opponent. That’s how I feel.” What happens later that night? The Capitals overcome a four-goal deficit against the Canucks to win in overtime. Pretty wild. Also wild: the Capitals had lost their previous 50 games when trailing by at least four goals.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Washington became the second team with a four-goal comeback this season — the Jets did it against the Devils on Oct. 4 — which marked just the fifth four-goal comeback win in the NHL in the last 10 seasons.

I asked Carlson, upon reflection, how real the Stanley Cup hangover was. He admitted last year’s training camp was a bit more difficult to get through — and the team felt like they were “catching up a little bit.”

“But as the season went on, I didn’t feel any different,” Carlson said. “By opening night, I felt just as good as I would on any opening game. I really didn’t feel less energetic or less motivated. I don’t buy into the whole hangover thing; if anything, it gives you a little bit more momentum. Also, for our team, especially with having Ovi and the top guys we’ve had my whole career, we’re always getting everyone’s best effort every night. We were never sneaking up on teams over the last seven, eight, nine, 10 years.”

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was a terrific guest on ESPN on Ice this week. I highly recommend you check out the entire interview, but I found this to be a very honest answer on the Bruins’ goaltending split — and if teams need to rely on two goaltenders to win in the modern NHL. “I don’t know if you have to,” Cassidy said. “We do it that way because the data’s told us that Tuukka [Rask] has a certain workload where he’s performed better. It’s a lot closer to 50 games than it is to 65. The other part of it is that we have a really good backup. We trust him. It started with [Anton] Khudobin, who was good for us, and then [Jaroslav] Halak. Part of it is that. If your team doesn’t have confidence in the guy going in 35 times a year, then that’s a problem. So we’re lucky that way. That’s how we go about it, and we’re not going to change. The game is harder on goalies. It’s faster, more physical around the net. I think their workload is harder than it was in the past.”

At the espnW summit in Newport Beach this past week, Kendall Coyne Schofield and John Langel spoke on a panel about equal pay. Langel, the attorney at Ballard Spahr who is working with the 200-plus women’s players boycotting professional hockey this year, explicitly called out the NHL to get involved with women’s professional hockey.

“We haven’t been too secretive about it,” Langel said. “The WNBA has the NBA alongside it. The National Women’s Soccer League is formed by U.S. Soccer — well-heeled, smart, soccer people. They engage MLS teams; half the teams are owned by MLS franchises. Our league, the WUSA, had Comcast, Fox Communications, Time Warner, Discovery all behind it, putting in millions of dollars, but they weren’t soccer-savvy. For the women’s team league to survive, they need the established identity that hits the ground running and knows how to run the sport. And we’ve not been secretive about it. We think the one viable option is the WNHL. And that’s what we’re moving towards.”

Coyne Schofield was as strong as I’ve ever heard her on the topic of professional women’s hockey.

“I think we want to go to where the WNBA is today,” Coyne Schofield said. “Now we have to go over 20 years back, and that’s where hockey is today. We don’t have a professional league that’s sustainable. There’s a few professional leagues — one folded in April this year, one is still going — but they are simply being labeled as professional. They’re not acting as professional. There’s not one thing that’s been professional about the league. The product, the treatment of the players, the pay.”

Along that topic, I spoke with WNBA players union president Nneka Oguwmike at the summit. I thought these comments about the WNBA/NBA relationship were especially interesting, if you think about the NHL getting involved with a woman’s league.

“Without the NBA, we wouldn’t be here,” Ogwumike said. “I think that it is true: We do need the support of men’s leagues, to be honest. I was talking with Kendall [Coyne Schofield], and she was saying, we just need the NHL to buy in. Quite frankly, that’s a big reason why we’re successful: because we have a brother league that helped get us started and helped sustain us. I think that maybe complacency with initial success has kind of slowed things down, progressively, for us. I think that as the game grows, we have to grow the business. We find ourselves in a moment where we can’t continue to do the same old thing. That same old thing may work to get a league started as the women in hockey are looking to do. But to sustain it, you have to invest in it as much as you have in the men’s league.”


Three Stars of the Week

Pekka Rinne, G, Nashville Predators

The Predators’ offense looks fantastic right now (leading the league with 4.09 goals per game) but let’s not overlook Rinne’s strong play. The Nashville goaltender won his two starts this week, stopping 52 of 53 shots for a .981 save percentage.

Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins

The Bruins had a strong week — defeating the rival Maple Leafs, blanking the Blues in a Stanley Cup rematch then thrashing the Rangers on Sunday night. Brad Marchand was a big part of that, tallying three goals and five assists in three games last week.

Brayden Schenn, C, St. Louis Blues

The Blues are still working out some early-season funks, and they could be without Vladimir Tarasenko, who missed this weekend’s games with an upper-body injury. Lucky, the newly extended Schenn has stepped up offensively, with four goals in four games.


What we liked this past week

  • This play by Predators goalie Pekka Rinne — to shovel the puck above Eric Staal‘s head, to avoid a delay of game penalty after skating far outside his crease — is quite creative, and well-executed.


What we didn’t like this past week

  • Concerned and monitoring the situation around Vladimir Tarasenko, who stayed home from the Blues’ recent road trip, including a rematch of the Stanley Cup final with a visit to the Bruins. The star winger (10 points in 10 games so far) will be re-evaluated on Monday after suffering an upper-body injury versus the Kings on Thursday night.

  • You have to feel for 19-year-old Flyers rookie Joel Farabee. He appeared to have scored his first NHL goal on the road in Chicago this week — only to have it called back for offsides. He then appeared to record his first NHL assist. Again, it was called back for offsides. Both times, linemate Kevin Hayes was the culprit. Farabee did get his first assist later in the game. Naturally, it was Hayes who scored.

  • Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko is awesome when he’s confident and happy. We don’t like hearing these quotes from sad Kakko, who endured a bit of a slump as the Rangers endured a five-game losing streak. “Hockey isn’t very much fun for me right now,” Kakko told Finland’s Eastside Media earlier in the week, according to a translation from reporter Pasi Tuominen. “Things haven’t been working out, and sometimes I feel like I could be on the ice a bit more. It would be cool to get a chance on the first line at some point. I understand that it hasn’t been realistic so far, since I haven’t really showed much.”


Games of the week

Tuesday, Oct. 29: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs

See if John Carlson can match Al Macinnis’ record for points for a defenseman in October! But also see some exciting, wide-open hockey. These are two of the top four scoring teams in the league.

Thursday, Oct. 31: Montreal Canadiens at Vegas Golden Knights (ESPN+)

What’s spookier than Halloween hockey? Well, a lot actually. But this isn’t a bad plan if you’re manning the door waiting for trick-or-treaters.

Friday, Nov. 1: Dallas Stars at Colorado Avalanche (ESPN+)

Don’t look now, but the Stars could be climbing their way out of the early mess, winning three of their last four. The Avs are the team to beat in the West, especially after a thrashing of Vegas last week.


Quote of the week

After the Blue Jackets beat the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime, John Tortorella had a message for those who doubted his team this season:



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