The Capitals’ John Carlson is averaging a career-high 26 minutes per game in seven outings this year, but don’t ask if he’s feeling the effects on the ice. Too much adrenaline pumping, he says, to worry about that.
After he gets home, though, it’s a different story.
Carlson, 27, isn’t complaining. The veteran defenseman has taken on a new role this season, as coach Barry Trotz has called on Carlson to help make up for Washington’s lack of depth on the blue line.
Carlson saw a season-high 27:33 in ice time in the Capitals’ 2-0 loss Tuesday to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“You’ve just got to push the pedal down,” Carlson said. “You can’t let up because guys are too good. It’s something I continue to work on. You get more minutes, you don’t want to float through them.”
Carlson’s career-high in average ice time per game was 24:31 during the 2013-14 season. In seven games, the defenseman has played 26:13 per game — up 3½ minutes from last year.
There was already a need for Carlson and the Capitals’ other defensemen to step up after losing Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt in the offseason. But an injury to Matt Niskanen, the team’s top d-man, made matters worse.
Niskanen is out at least until Nov. 7 after he was placed on long-term injured reserve last week because of an upper body injury suffered against the New Jersey Devils. Carlson was promoted to the Capitals’ top pairing and has rotated through partners.
Last week, Trotz said “It’ll take some time” before Carlson’s ice time comes down, but added the change is an opportunity for him. Carlson is in the last year of his contract.
“If he wants to be an elite defenseman in the league, a lot of those guys carry those minutes and more,” Trotz said. ” And they can carry them consistently. That’ll be a really good test for John. I know he’s capable of it.”
Carlson is up for the challenge.
“It’s certainly something I want to get better at and keep progressing,” he said. “I know it’s probably not going to be like this all year, but when it does happen, I’ve got to be ready and prepared and able to step up.”
The Capitals defense, though, remains a work in progress. They are giving up an 11th-worst 3.43 goals per game and are allowing a 10th-worst 33.9 shots per game.
And when the defense is bad, games can turn ugly in a hurry. Washington gave up eight goals in Philadelphia last Friday, leading Trotz to compare his defensive zone to swiss cheese.
The Flyers’ loss wasn’t an ideal debut for rookie defenseman Madison Bowey, who was called up to replace Niskanen.
With Niskanen hurt and Carlson’s increased workload, Bowey said the Capitals’ younger players have to be focused on doing the simple things to keep the others fresh. Washington also has another rookie, Christian Djoos, in the lineup.
“Matt Niskanen is a good solid right-handed defenseman who can move the puck tremendously and has great skating ability,” Bowey said. “For me, I think I’m kind of similar in that way. If I can just use my speed and play solid defensively … it should be good.”
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said Carlson has taken on a bigger leadership role in helping mentor the team’s prospects, making sure they’re comfortable. Holtby said the Capitals did a better job of handling Toronto’s speed and size compared to recent games.
The Capitals are 3-3-1 this season.
“We’d be kidding ourselves if we’re not going to have some growing pains along the way,” Holtby said. “It’s just how we handle them and what we do with them. How do we fight through them and get better? … As long as we’re working at it and have full commitment, it’ll come sooner rather than later.”