When John Carlson took a 90-mph slap shot to the side of the head in late December, there were immediate fears for the defenseman’s well-being and concerns that he may never play hockey ever again. Carlson was immediately transported to the hospital during the third period where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and severed temporal artery.
Three months and after a lot of hard work later, there is good news to report: Carlson’s career will continue and he will make his incredible return to the Capitals against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.
Carlson’s return is worth celebrating but it comes at a pivotal moment for the Capitals where the landscape of the team has greatly shifted. The Capitals were firmly in playoff position in late December when John was last in the lineup, but their play cratered in the months following. GM Brian MacLellan signaled the team was throwing in the towel when it dealt five veteran players at the trade deadline, but head coach Peter Laviolette is still gunning for a playoff spot despite all odds.
With 10 games remaining in the Capitals’ season, an uncomfortable question must be posed: Is a John Carlson comeback even worth it this season?
For Carlson personally: the obvious answer is yes. But for the Capitals as a team, the answer is much less clear.
Here’s a list of the pros and cons in disconcerting reverse order.
The Playoffs are kinda sorta out of reach.
As of the morning of Thursday, March 23, the Capitals have a 0.3 percent chance of making the postseason per MoneyPuck. That’s not 30 percent, that’s three-tenths of one percent.
John Carlson will not help the Capitals in a postseason run because there will not be one this season. Well, unless they win all of their remaining 10 games and something crazy happens in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Carlson could possibly hurt the team’s draft pick position in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Carlson and his massive skillset coming back into the lineup *should* do one thing: Make the Capitals better immediately.
Carlson will help take some of the massive load off rearguard Rasmus Sandin, who the Capitals acquired in a trade with the Maple Leafs. The 23-year-old has put up a lot of points skating on the team’s first pairing, but he has given up a lot of five-on-five goals, struggling at times on defense. Carlson’s presence will help other defensemen slot better into the lineup, setting them up for more success. Carly will also get back on the first power play unit where he may make the Capitals’ extra-man unit better.
Normally, fielding the best possible team is the optimal goal of a sports team. But again, the Capitals, who are the 12th-worst team in the league currently, are essentially eliminated from the playoffs. The only thing the Capitals can earn in this moment in time is a better draft choice by losing more.
Fielding a better team though does not help accomplish that feat.
Carlson’s presence takes away opportunity from younger players.
While Vincent Iorio is injured in Hershey, the Capitals do have several young players who could benefit with more playing time on the backend in the NHL. Seeing how they perform in the final 10 games could help the Capitals see what they have and educate them on decisions for next year.
Two of those developing players are Sandin and Alex Alexeyev. With Carlson back, Sandin’s role is changing as he’s dropping to the second pairing and being removed from the first power-play unit. Alexeyev could potentially see his playing time dip with Carlson back as well.
While seeing young players make mistakes or learn on the job is not fun, these are mistakes happening during a period of time when winning is not as important. It’s better to make these mistakes now than next season when the Capitals will be in the hunt again.
More Ovechkin goals.
If there’s been any Capitals defenseman synonymous with assisting on Alex Ovechkin goals, it’s John Carlson. Carlson has set up Ovechkin on 142 of the captain’s 820 career goals.
If the Capitals aren’t going to win another Stanley Cup during the next three seasons, watching Ovechkin claim Wayne Gretzky’s goals record is the next best thing.
The 10 games help Carlson transition into next season.
Missing three months of time is difficult. Doing so after a scary head injury is something else entirely.
Carlson getting into the team’s final games this season will give him the confidence back that he can play and that he’s okay.
It’ll also show Caps brass that Carly’s still got it.
A more entertaining product.
A lot of season ticket holders pay a lot of good money to see the Capitals play. Fielding the worst possible iteration of the team and tanking is not fun to watch — even if it could help the organization long term.
Carlson should make the team more entertaining to watch. While the Caps’ 7-6 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was embarrassing, the goals made it hard to turn away from.
It keeps Carlson’s morale up.
Peter Laviolette recently addressed a question about if the team should sit Carlson down the stretch. Lavy’s response considered Carlson’s morale and how sidelining him might impact other players.
“You know, I hear that question sometimes,” Laviolette said. “At some point you’re telling a healthy player he can’t play, you know what I mean? When somebody–you have a lot of really good doctors, really good training staff, and we would not put somebody back in there that was not cleared by the doctors and able to handle themselves and take care of themselves, out on the ice. I think that there’s situations that happen that you do sit there and say, okay, we’re not moving forward with this player. However, there’s times that come up where everything’s clear, the player looks healthy, he’s in shape, he’s able to do everything he needs to do. If you were to go and do that you’d be telling a healthy player that you’re not going to play him. That creates problems, too.”
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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