The Caps own the Cup, but the future is unclear. Now, at the dawn of the offseason, it’s time to ask ourselves the big questions.
In this episode: Exactly how paid is John Carlson about to be?
Caps defenseman John Carlson had a career year at just the right time. Just as his six-year, $3.96 million contract expired, Carlson recorded 68 points (15 goals) and added 20 more (5 goals) in the postseason. Now an unrestricted free agent at the age of 28, he should see a massive pay raise that may make him one of the best compensated defensemen in the league.
Matt Cane of Hockey Graphs used historical data about free-agent contracts to predict what could happen this summer. Cane’s best guess for John Carlson is massive: eight years, $8.6 million per year.
Only one defenseman earns more than an average of $8.6 million: PK Subban. This season, Subban recorded 59 points (16 goals) for Nashville at an average $9 million per year, so the comparison doesn’t seem immediately out of bounds. But there are a few obstacles between John Carlson and his massive payday.
First, the Caps probably cannot afford to pay Carlson open-market prices while also extending all of Tom Wilson, Michal Kempny, and a few depth forwards. Cap Friendly projects Washington’s available space at $11.2 million, so something has to give if Carlson were to stay at around $8.5 million.
Second, Carlson’s offensive numbers this season deserve scrutiny.
Combining the regular season and playoffs, 40 percent of Carlson’s point total came on secondary assists, which are essentially statistical noise. That number is the same at both even strength and the power play, which has been a windfall for Carlson.
Carlson plays the high man on the Caps power play, but it’s likely that Nicklas Backstrom along the half wall is the real playmaker. We’ve seen, for example, that the Caps PP can be just as dangerous with another quarterback. Tyler Dellow of The Athletic illustrated that the 2016-17 Caps power play generated chances similarly with Matt Niskanen and Kevin Shattenkirk up top.
With Shattenkirk gone and Niskanen busy in a 5-on-5 shutdown role, Carlson enjoyed the most the most power-play time of his career, driving his gaudy point totals.
Third and lastly, Carlson’s defensive numbers were alarming. Opponent shot rates skyrocketed against all Caps defensemen this season, but Carlson had it particularly bad. For comparison, here are heatmaps of opponent shots from hockeyviz for Carlson and another beleaguered blueliner, Brooks Orpik.
Among 195 defensemen with at least 600 minutes played this season, Carlson saw higher opponent shot attempt rates than all but 27, higher opponent scoring chance rates than all but 28, and higher opponent high-danger chance rates than all but 15. Something was definitely wrong on that side of the ice (weak teammates being a strong possibility), and one has to hope that an eight-million dollar player would fix it when his next deal goes into effect.
Nonetheless, with the salary cap going up this offseason and expected to rise still in coming years, Carlson will certainly command a big contract. How big and where are yet to be determined.
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