The phrase “sophomore slump” is thrown around a lot in professional sports, but according to John Carlson, it does not exist.
“No,” he defiantly said when asked if a certain jinx might be the cause of his recent second-year struggles.
“It all happens in the game of hockey,” Carlson continued. “You get bad luck, you get bad plays. Sometimes, you make good plays. I haven’t been doing my best.”
Perhaps Carlson does not believe in sophomore slumps and by looking at his offensive numbers, it does not seem that he is having any trouble in that regard; his six goals and 18 assists are just two and 13 away from setting new career highs, respectively. Yet, his lackluster play as of late – particularly on the defensive end – requires a laundry list:
- Washington allowed 32 total goals against in 12 games during the month of January. Carlson was on the ice for 22 of them, including all seven goals that the Tampa Bay Lightning scored in two games against the Caps.
- Looking at the season as a whole, Carlson has been on the ice for 66 of the Caps’ 143 goals against (46 percent). The 66 goals against leads the Caps and is sixth-highest in the NHL.
- Carlson has also been on the ice for nearly half of Washington’s power play goals against (15/34, 44 percent). By taking away those 15 goals from his season total, Carlson is the only Cap to be on the ice for over 50 non-power play goals against (even strength, shorthanded, empty net) with 51, which is nine higher than the second-highest (Dennis Wideman, 42).
- A minus-4 rating is the third-lowest on the team (though Carlson is tied with two other defenseman: Dmitry Orlov and Roman Hamrlik). Carlson was never an overall minus last season; his lowest +/- rating was even.
- Carlson is third in the NHL and first among defensemen with 58 giveaways, including two in January that directly led to goals against.
- Since earning the NHL’s “Third Star of the Week” Award December 12 after earning seven points in three games, Carlson has one goal, three assists and is a minus-11 in 22 games.
While Carlson did not say much regarding his recent play, his body language said more than he ever could. Carlson is suffering from a lack of confidence that has apparently taken its toll.
“It’s bad luck to start with, then it leads to things happening,” Karl Alzner said. “Since we talk a lot – we’re roommates on the road – he lets me know what he’s feeling and how he thinks it’s going for him out on the ice. I started to pay attention a little bit more and I noticed that pucks were hopping weird on him all the time. He would go to make a pass and it’d spin off his stick or he’d be on the ice for goals that he had nothing to do with.”
“That really, really weighs on the confidence,” Alzner continued. “He’s a guy that always plays confident. He has the ability to go out and make things happen. When your confidence isn’t there, it can just be from bad luck, but it’s still enough to throw you off. I think that’s what is happening to him and hopefully us being back together, we can get something going and build him back up.”
Carlson and Alzner are virtually synonymous with each other; they have been paired together throughout their careers in the Washington organization. Carlson, however, spent the second half of January with Hamrlik, where the majority of his mediocre games took place (January 22 v. Pittsburgh, January 24 v. Boston and January 31 v. Tampa Bay, where he was on the ice for eight of the 11 total goals that Washington allowed). According to Alzner, that unfamiliarity and the adjustments that follow can play a role in exacerbating problems.
“Sometimes, it changes more than other times, but you do change a few things,” Alzner said, who was paired with Carlson once again during Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers. “Like with me and [Carlson], we kind of had a system. We knew he was going to be up in the rush and I was going to be back. When the pucks got dumped in, I’d like to go get them and then pass over to him. You do have to change things, so that could have something to do with it, but I watched pretty closely and he was getting some bad bounces on him.”
“Every time there was something bad that happened to him, the other team seemed to score,” Alzner continued. “It just sucks. It’s the worst feeling ever to have that happen and there’s nothing he can do about it.”
Some may point to head coach Dale Hunter’s system as the reason for Carlson’s struggles, but not only did Carlson excel in essentially the same system under Hunter while the two were with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09 (he earned 76 points), but he also saw his greatest stretch of success this season when Hunter arrived in late November; Carlson had eight points in Hunter’s first six games as head coach.
Regardless, looking at Carlson’s career, he has seemingly never faced adversity. Since and before bursting onto the international scene with his World Juniors Championship-clinching goal in 2010, Carlson has enjoyed great success. He had 39 points in 48 games with the Bears in 2009-10 and ended his rookie season with Alzner as the Caps’ top defensive pair after starting at the bottom of the depth chart in 2010-11. Yet, adversity is a great teacher and Carlson’s teammates and coaches are confident that he will regain his confidence.
“He wants to play better,” Hunter said. “He’s been on for a few goals against, so it does break your confidence. I think the goal [against Florida], it gets your confidence going. It was a good shot. It got us back in the game and gave us a chance to try to tie it up. Hopefully, that gets him going on the offensive side so that he can create more for the team.”