John Carlson has 605 career points. He’s a two-time all star. He has finished in the top five for Norris voting three times. He scored 20 points in Washington’s Stanley Cup run. He’s a very good player with a very distinguished career.
He’s also often the subject of criticism for his defense. He’s been on the ice for 17 opponent goals during five-on-five play, behind only his current partner, Erik Gustafsson. Among 157 NHL defenders with 240 minutes played, Carlson ranks 146th at limiting high-danger chances for the opponent. According to HockeyViz, opponents get 11 percentage points more offense when Carlson is on the ice compared to the league average.
For the conclusion of the twenty-games-in series, I spoke with Micah Blake McCurdy, creator of HockeyViz, about the mystery of offensive defenders, what makes Carlson so dangerous at both ends of the ice, and why his recent results may be falling short.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Micah, thanks for hanging out. I wanted to start with your gut instinct on something: if I said that John Carlson was a controversial subject among Caps fans, would you be surprised?
Nothing would surprise me about Caps fans and controversies, especially not about offensive defenders.
Ha. Carlson had for a long time seemed to follow the mold of another O-ish D, Mike Green. For a player of that kind of profile, I guess there are tradeoffs — a weaker defense for a stronger offense. Would you say Carlson has been a good or successful example of that?
I think the comparisons to Green are pretty well-deserved. Both players are moderately good at creating offence, very good at passes that lead directly to goals specifically, and weak or ordinary defensively. It’s not completely clear to me that the things are traded off, though; I’m not sure either player could have simply been elite defensively and not elite offensively had they felt like it. Anymore than an elite defensive skater could simply decide to become an offensive star instead.
So it isn’t so much a conscious strategy or the result of some in-game tactic, but instead the makeup of the player themselves?
I don’t know for sure how to isolate which players are more or less malleable in this sense, but I do think that most players have the kinds of skills they have, and that includes the best players.
In your research, you call the ability to make those good passes that lead directly to goals “setting”, right? Is Carlson a good setter?
Yes. “Setting” is what I’ve been calling that particular kind of playmaking, where you expect the person receiving the pass is going to shoot rather than pass again. It’s not just statistically isolatable; it’s the kind of thing you can feel watching – the sorts of passes that feel dangerous watching, that “tingle” somehow.
It feels like one of the quintessential skills of a star player. Is Carlson a star player? Or has he been one?
At that specific skill he’s been a star by any sensible definition for seven or eight years — two or three years of those at the very top handful of players in the league.
And yet, at least inside this one fan community, Carlson catches a lot of heat. Why does a player like Carlson get criticized so strongly? Is it because we don’t appreciate the offense, or we have unreasonable expectations of his ability to control those not-so-much tradeoffs you described before?
I think he is fairly weak defensively, and I don’t think it’s ever right to shy away from saying so even about star players. There is a tendency among fans (and coaches) to treat offensive weaknesses as forgivable, as understandable somehow, but to treat defensive weaknesses as somehow moral failings, which I think is silly.
I like how on HockeyViz you break down players’ isolated impacts on offense and defense, but it’s not like they’re unrelated to each other, right? As a player you’re kinda always doing both at once.
Yes. There’s something there that I don’t understand completely yet, because on the individual level every skater has to do both at all times and in all places. The rink is so small and the puck is so fast. But at a macro level, we don’t see correlations between offensive and defensive skills, to speak of. Some players are great at both, like Patrice Bergeron. Some are specialists. Some are just generally weak, but even Bergeron has his own specific skill weaknesses.
Are there players you find similar to Carlson’s offense/defense profile on other teams, and do you find them to be lambasted as often?
They’re almost always lightning rods, yeah. Mike Green you already mentioned; he’s probably the closest recent one. Erik Karlsson is another, which I’ve always found cute.
(Because their last names are homonyms.)
Karlsson is better in transition offensively, and not as strong as Carlson running a power play, but there’s still a big similarity. Drew Doughty is a lot more similar than you might think based on fan sentiment.
Karlsson is an interesting comparator, as I had an impression of him falling off a cliff as he aged, though his recent performance seems pretty strong. How do players like this tend to age?
[Ed. note – On Monday, McCurdy released new research into aging curves.]
Karlsson is currently bouncing back huge after an extremely weak couple of seasons. That’s a good object lesson for how these things are hardly smooth on an individual level.
But the way these skills age is unusual. Setting in particular hardly ages at all — the curve peaks very early but it’s extremely shallow at all ages. I think this is because it’s primarily mental, not physical. Those kinds of cognitive abilities don’t change very much in the age ranges that NHL players play. Offensive creation, though, requires skating in transition, and while it helps to pass well, you really need to be able to wheel. That footspeed falls off sharply.
Those two skills — offensive creation and setting — are the two abilities that players like Carlson have made their careers on. Setting in particular is also heavily dependent on teammate quality. More so than most other skills, to get the most value from those kind of playmakers you really need to have strong (or at least not weak) finishers getting regular minutes with them. Caps fans will know all about how that can work.
So Carlson is best used along with great finishers in the team’s top six. It doesn’t make sense to pair him with grinders.
Exactly. There are some players where you want to mitigate their weaknesses; others where you want to maximize their strengths. Carlson is the latter type in my mind, which is not to say that the weaknesses go away — just the opposite — but you’ve got to have a clear view of what you’re doing and how it’s going to help and hurt.
It’s my general vibe that Carlson has had a rough start to 2022-23. My impression and worry is that he’s fallen off a cliff — kind of a disaster for a team as old as Washington. What do you see there?
Here, my general approach to the sport makes me a bit of a wet blanket. I take it as an axiom that players simply don’t change that fast, outside of being hurt. But in fact players do get hurt, and play hurt.
Carlson this year has played with Fehervary, Gustafsson, and Orlov — of which Fehervary is probably the most suitable partner, which, with apologies to Martin, is kinda sad for Washington.
Orlov is a good choice if you want to take the mitigation approach to finding a partner for Carlson. That is not without its merits, but it wouldn’t be my choice.
As I said earlier, one aspect of aging that I don’t fully understand yet is how it interacts with injuries: both how often the injuries happen (perhaps more often) and how they’re rehabbed (certainly more slowly). My first instinct whenever I see players of Carlson’s age drop off is to think of injuries — not age directly affecting footspeed.
For a player that gets as much play as Carlson does, this is not necessarily a comforting idea. The team uses him a lot.
Another similar player to Carlson generally, in both skill and usage aspects, is Thomas Chabot. He’s much younger of course, but Ottawa relies on him a great deal, and it’s the same kind of worrying to fans there.
Parting question: is there anything you’d want our large anti-Carlson mob to consider?
There is a natural variance argument to consider also that affects how the benefits of different skills accrue to teams that is relevant.
Shot suppression and shot creation are the kinds of things that are happening constantly, all the time, every shift, in some sense many times per shift. So if you are good at those things, or weak at those things, you’ll see those impacts easily. Their natural variance is small. Those things also play out, frequently, in the neutral zone or near the bluelines, so they’re not quite as close to the goal. They don’t mark themselves on your brain the same way.
But setting, finishing, and especially goaltending are skills you use less often, but more saliently. You notice stuff that happens very close to the net, but the puck is there a lot less often, so the natural variance of those skills is higher. It will look like a player is dynamite one game and missing the next.
There are fewer of those big moments, so it’s easier for us to see the player as inconsistent?
Yes. Some players might be truly inconsistent, in the sense of having more variance in their ability at the same skill level, but the skills themselves have natural variances because of how the game itself is structured.
I’ve found this conversation to be strangely encouraging. I did not expect that. Thank you.
I get that a lot. (And you’re welcome.)
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