- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The timing of the All-Star break works quite well with the Washington Capitals‘ schedule. After Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, coach Barry Trotz, forward Alex Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby will make the trip from BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, to Tampa, Florida for this weekend’s activities.

“It’s awesome,” said Trotz, who will coach the Metropolitan Division’s team in the All-Star Game. “You hate it to be in Vegas like we were at Christmas time and traveling 3,000 miles to get somewhere.”

Trotz, Ovechkin and Holtby, however, are the only Capitals‘ staying in Florida for the events.

Defenseman John Carlson — in the midst of a career year — won’t be making the trip. Carlson was left off the Metropolitan roster when the All-Star team was announced Jan. 10.

But there’s definitely a case that Carlson deserved the mid-season honor.

At the All-Star Break, Carlson is third among defensemen in points with 37 (six goals and 31 assists). Dallas’ John Klingberg and San Jose’s Brett Burns, both of whom are ahead of Carlson, each were named All-Stars.

All-Star or not, Carlson is playing the best hockey of his life. A free agent at the end of the season, Carlson’s play has put him in line for a huge payday in the summer.

“He’s been a stud,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Playing as big as role this year, a ton of minutes, with a new partner the large majority of the time, he’s been carrying the load the majority of the time. He’s been really good.”

Carlson has said he isn’t worrying about his next contract.

The Capitals, though, almost have no choice but to pay Carlson this summer, and general manager Brian MacLellan revealed as much to NHL.com in January — telling the website the Capitals want Carlson back “no matter what.”

Washington found itself in a similar position last offseason with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. The Capitals shelled out an eight-year, $62.4 million contract to Kuznetsov and an eight-year, $46 million for Oshie. MacLellan identified Kuznetsov as a franchise cornerstone and Oshie as a player whose production the Capitals needed moving forward.

Carlson has made the case for why the Capitals should invest him, similarly. Besides the point production, Carlson has played a career-high 26:09 per game this season — 3:26 more than last year. Initially, the spike in ice time was partly because Niskanen missed 13 games with a hand injury early in the season.

But Carlson’s minutes never dropped. He showed Trotz and the Capitals that he was capable of elevating his game in a bigger role. Trotz previously said earlier in the season that to be a top defenseman in the league, Carlson would have to play big minutes and stay steady.

“He’s taken a step forward,” Trotz said. “When you have a bigger responsibility, and you still have those numbers, you’re going to take a step forward and he has.”

Carlson turned 28 two weeks ago, so if the Capitals give him an eight-year contract, like they did to Kuznetsov and Oshie, that would pay the defenseman into his mid-30s. Carlson is making just $4 million this year — which ranks him 81st among defensemen this season.

In the NHL, the top 10 highest-paid defensemen make no less than $7.6 million and have no cap hit lower than $7 million. Last offseason, Kevin Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26 million, a cap hit worth $6.65 million, but said he gave up money and length to sign with his hometown New York Rangers.

The Capitals will be pressed against the cap for another straight year. According to Cap Friendly, Washington will have $16 million in cap space and have nine free agents, five of whom will be unrestricted. They will have decisions to make this offseason, and it likely starts with Carlson.

“It’s nice to see him playing with a ton of confidence and getting production,” Niskanen said. “You can tell that he has got some of his swagger back and is really playing with confidence.”

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