With the Washington Capitals entering a summer of salary cap uncertainty with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming, they still have several decisions to make regarding their pending free agents. Chief among their restricted free agents this off-season is defenseman John Carlson. Carlson made a base salary of $787,500 last season, the last of his entry-level deal, meaning the qualifying offer tendered to him by the Washington Capitals is for at least $826,875. Judging by other young defenseman around the league, Carlson should earn quite a bit more than that as a top-pairing defenseman, likely a 4-year deal worth $3 million per season.
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John Carlson is a tall, strapping 6’3, 213-lb, two-way defenseman who will turn 23 in January. The Massachusetts-born, New Jersey-raised defender doesn’t take many penalties and is an ideal partner for his defensive-minded partner, Karl Alzner. He was selected by the Capitals 27th overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, due in no small part to his decision to play junior hockey in London under head coach Dale Hunter for the 2008-09 season. At the conclusion of that junior season, Carlson got a head start on his professional career, playing in 16 AHL playoff games as he helped the Hershey Bears win the Calder Cup. Because Carlson elected to play Canadian Major Junior after playing in the USHL, he was eligible to play in the AHL as a 19-year old in 2009-10. Carlson spent 48 total games with Hershey in that regular season, earning AHL All-Rookie Team honors. He also scored the gold-medal winning goal for the United States at the World Juniors and appeared in his first 22 NHL regular season games, plus and 7 playoff games for the Capitals. He capped his season off by scoring the Calder Cup winning goal for the Bears in the AHL. Carlson made the NHL full-time in 2010-11 and made the NHL All-Rookie team as part of the Caps’ shutdown pairing, a role he reprised for much of the 2011-12 season. After being a solid plus player for his first two NHL seasons, Carlson had a mini-sophomore slump when struggled mid-season and saw his +/- rating dip to -15. He spent last season as the Capitals’ #2 defenseman in terms of ice time per game (21:51) and shorthanded ice time (2:27), he led team defenders in blocked shots (153), giveaways (92), and takeaways (31). He was on the second powerplay unit, posting 4 goals and 7 points in 1:25 of powerplay time per game. He also posted a solid playoffs as #2 in ice time in 14 games, and he led team defenders in hits (30) and blocked shots (38).
The comparable young, similarly sized and experienced defensemen in the NHL are Erik Johnson, Luke Schenn, Zach Bogosian, and Marc Staal. Teammate Karl Alzner will also be used as a comparable. All five comparables were top-12 draft picks between 2005 and 2008, and all were between 21 and 24 when they signed their second NHL contract. The stats below will compare their production in their careers at the time their contracts were signed.
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (Age 22.5 at start of free agency, 7/1/2012)
Career Stats: 186 GP, 17-58-75 (+17), 74 PIM and 30 playoff games, 5-7-12 (+3), 12 PIM
Contract Season: 82 GP, 9-23-32 (-15), 22 PIM and 14 playoff games, 2-3-5 (-1) 8 PIM
Previous Season: 82 GP, 7-30-37 (+21), 44 PIM and 9 playoff games, 2-1-3 (-2) 4 PIM
First NHL Season: 22 GP, 1-5-6 (+11), 8 PIM and 7 playoff games, 1-3-4 (+6) 0 PIM
Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals (Age 22.8 at contract signing on 7/15/2011)
Contract: 2 years, $2.57 million ($1.285 million per season)
Career Stats: 133 GP, 3-19-22 (+11), 34 PIM
Playoff Stats: 10 GP, 0-1-1, (-4), 0 PIM
Contract Season: 82 GP, 2-10-12 (+14), 24 PIM and 9 playoff games, 0-1-1 (-4), 0 PIM
Previous Season: 21 GP, 0-5-5 (-2), 8 PIM and 1 playoff game, 0-0-0 (E), 0 PIM
First NHL Season: 30 GP, 1-4-5 (-1), 2 PIM
Luke Schenn, Toronto Maple Leafs (Age 21.9 at contract signing on 9/16/2011)
Contract: 5 years, $18 million ($3.6 million per season)
Career Stats: 231 GP, 12-41-53 (-17), 155 PIM
Contract Season: 82 GP, 5-17-22 (-7), 34 PIM
Previous Season: 79 GP, 5-12-17 (+2) 50 PIM
First NHL Season: 70 GP, 2-12-14 (-12) 71 PIM
*Named to 2009 NHL All-Rookie Team
Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues (Age 22.4 at contract signing 8/2/2010)
Contract: 2 years, $5.2 million ($2.6 million per season)
Career Stats: 148 GP, 15-57-72 (-8) 107 PIM
Contract Season: 79 GP, 10-29-39 (+1), 79 PIM
Previous Season: Did not play – injured knee in golf cart accident
First NHL Season: 69 GP, 5-28-33 (-9) 28 PIM
*Won Silver Medal at 2010 Olympics
Zach Bogosian, Atlanta Thrashers (Age 21.2 at contract signing, 9/14/2011)
Contract: 2 years, $5 million ($2.5 million per season)
Career Stats: 199 GP, 24-35-59 (-34), 137 PIM
Contract Season: 71 GP, 5-12-17 (-27), 29 PIM
Previous Season: 81 GP, 10-13-23 (-18), 61 PIM
First NHL Season: 47 GP, 9-10-19 (+11), 47 PIM
Marc Staal, New York Rangers (Age 23.7 at contract signing, 9/15/2010)
Contract: 5 years, $19.875 million ($3.975 million per season)
Career Stats: 244 GP, 13-39-52 (+6), 150 PIM
Contract Season: 82 GP, 8-19-27 (+11), 44 PIM
Previous Season: 82 GP, 3-12-15 (-18), 64 PIM and 7 playoff games, 1-0-1 (-3) 0 PIM
First NHL Season: 80 GP, 2-8-10 (+2), 42 PIM and 10 playoff games, 1-2-3 (+4), 8 PIM
Analyzing the Comparables:
Before delving into the listed comparables, it is important to note the Capitals’ salary structure, as Mike Green and Jeff Schultz will play an important role in Carlson’s contract negotiations. Green had produced very similar overall numbers to Carlson by the same point in his career, and his offensive upside got him 4 years and $21 million in the summer of 2008. Green, a two-time 1st Team NHL All-Star, is the unquestioned #1 defenseman on the team. He is likely to be the team’s highest paid defenseman again next season, assuming he accepts his qualifying offer of $5 million, meaning no defenseman currently on the roster will get more. Jeff Schultz was is on the other end of the spectrum, a hulking defensive defenseman who led the NHL in +/- before signing his 4-year contract at $2.75 million per season. Considering George McPhee’s history with Green and Jeff Schultz, a 4-year deal is likely for Carlson, as well.
John Carlson will certainly earn more money than his teammate Alzner, who represents the low end of this pay scale. The difference shines through when you consider that Carslon has effectively played one more full season than Alzner did at the same time in contract negotiations, and he certainly has produced more offense. Carlson has proven he’s a sure thing at both ends of the rink by this point, where Alzner merely got a bridge contract.
Luke Schenn and Marc Staal represent the high end of this range in terms of salary length and price. Both Schenn and Staal quickly asserted themselves into their teams’ plans and into starring roles at an early age. Considering Carlson has not played 3 full NHL seasons as these two had done, he is not likely to see this size of contract. Carlson also stepped into a starring role in part because of Mike Green’s injuries, something George McPhee takes into consideration (see Shaone Morrisonn’s arbitration hearing). Staal and Schenn are a proportionately larger part of their team’s future plans, as both of them led their teams in hits and takeaways in their contract year, and both were top pairing defensemen, especially on the penalty kill. While neither had the offensive upside as Carlson, Carlson is not a quantum leap ahead of them, either, especially as a chunk of Carlson’s production can be attributed to powerplay time the other two did not get.
Erik Johnson is an intriguing comparable. A first-overall draft pick, he had a good rookie season before clumsily hurting himself the next off-season. He lost a year of development and experience, which seriously hurt him come contract time. He did post 10 goals and 39 points in his contract year and led the team in takeaways. His career offensive numbers are similar to Carlson’s, but 23 of his 72 points came on the powerplay. It is important to note Johnson was strictly an offensive defenseman, he spent little time on the penalty kill and was a second-pairing defender. Carlson should expect to earn no less than Johnson’s two years and $5.2 million.
Zach Bogosian is a defender who had a lot of expectations heaped upon him at an early age, earlier than any of the others. His first three NHL seasons all came before turning 21, and his +/- rating bears that out. With his performance and upside, 2 years and $5 million was a bridge contract, enough to get him to sign, not as much as he might be worth in the long run, but as much as the team was willing to risk without seeing a consistent performance from him.
John Carlson is not likely to get the contracts of Schenn or Staal because he has not proven himself to be as consistent as either of them, nor is he as important to his team’s long-term plans. Carlson’s struggles this season highlighted the work he still needs to do in terms of his mental toughness. Carlson has always had a knack for producing in big games, he plays his best when there is something on the line, and he never misses games. His upside is tremendous, and his performance so far has been impressive. There is no reason to think Carlson’s performance will suddenly drop off, and his durability has never been an issue, so a 4-year contract is certainly a viable contract length for him. His importance to the team’s future is magnified with the uncertainty surrounding Mike Green’s contract and health, and he is the type of defenseman who can play against any line and in all situations; a valuable asset.
Carlson’s versatility, discretion, skills, and physicality make him a player General Manager George McPhee can ill afford to trifle with. He could be the target of an offer sheet much the same way Niklas Hjalmarsson was in 2010. Hjalmarsson, a second-pairing defenseman for the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, was given an offer sheet for 4 years at $3.5 million per year, and had much less regular season experience and only slightly more playoff experience than Carlson. It would be unreasonable to think Carlson would not attract attention from other teams, and his market value is set at $3 million per season, comfortably in the middle of his comparables, and a half-million less than a Stanley Cup winner.