PITTSBURGH | Five years ago, the Washington Capitals found a couple of steals early in the draft in defensemen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. It hasn't been a full year since the 2008 draft, but it is already evident the Caps' scouting staff struck again by finding a blue-chip blueliner near the end of the first round.
Few other prospects in hockey have progressed as much since last June as defenseman John Carlson, the 27th selection by Washington with a pick acquired from Philadelphia for Steve Eminger and a third-round choice.
"John Carlson has a bright future. He's got all the tools," Hershey Bears coach Bob Woods said. "He's another young guy and he's got a lot to learn, but he's willing to do it. He does all the extra stuff, and you can see he's having fun. I think this experience [will] only help him down the road."
Carlson joined the Bears in their quest for the Calder Cup just as Hershey was finishing off Philadelphia in the first round. When their season is over, NHL organizations often send junior players to their American Hockey League clubs, but typically it is just to be around professionals and absorb the atmosphere.
Not so for Carlson, who stepped into the lineup for Game 1 of the second round and has become a regular on the Bears' talented defense.
"I've just been thrown into the fire a little bit, but it's been great and I love it. I couldn't ask for anything more," Carlson said. "I think the transition game is a lot faster. You can't take anything for granted. You've got to make sure you are aware of where everybody is at all times - just little things like that."
It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Carlson. He impressed the Caps so much during training camp that he earned an extended look with the big club before being allowed to join the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Carlson was one of the top defensemen in the OHL, racking up 16 goals and 76 points during the regular season. He chose to play for London instead of attending a U.S. college in part because of the chance to play for former Caps star Dale Hunter, and it was clearly a good fit.
"He's a great coach and a great guy to talk to," Carlson said. "Especially when it came to crunch time, he's a really good coach and I learned a lot from him. He's one of the biggest reasons I am where I am and why I had such a good year."
Once the OHL playoffs began, Carlson's production increased. He registered 22 points in 14 games for the Knights, who boasted one of the most talented teams in Canadian junior hockey but were bounced by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires.
It was a meeting of two superpowers, with several top NHL prospects on both sides. Windsor prevailed in five games, but all five went to overtime.
"Windsor was a great team all year. They're a great team with a lot of great players," Carlson said. "Of course you want to win, but it doesn't always go in your favor."
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Carlson's physical maturity is well beyond his age. He also has the potential to be an elite all-around defenseman.
Maybe playing in New Jersey before this season kept him from earning the scouting recognition he deserved before the draft, but the Caps certainly aren't complaining. Carlson may have more of an offensive upside than Karl Alzner, the organization's top prospect, and could join Alzner in pushing for a spot on Washington's roster next season.
"You just look at his development and his maturity just over the year in junior," Woods said. "He's developed his body, and he had some good coaching in London. Now he's making those steps, and it is preparing him more for this fall."