You knew for sure the Washington Capitals were going to re-sign John Carlson when they got Colorado to take the Brooks Orpik deal off their hands.
That decision — likewise inevitable the day it was signed, just like 60 percent of all Day 1 “oh they shouldn’t have signed that” contracts in the league today — freed up a ton of money and the Caps certainly always intended to spend the cash on Carlson, coming as he was off a career high in points and a key role in his team’s Stanley Cup win.
But eight years and $64 million? That’s a lot of money even for an elite defenseman; it ties him for second in the entire NHL, in fact, even with Brent Burns at an $8 million AAV, and just short of PK Subban’s $9 million.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has reportedly agreed to an $8.25 million AAV that can’t be signed until July 1, but even still, Carlson is a top-three defender in terms of the actual cap hit he carries. That number will probably change again next summer when Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty get new contracts.
But let’s even say, OK, John Carlson is now being paid like a top-five defenseman in the NHL. Does that strike anyone else out there as being absolutely off the rails? You have to pay for talent, sure, and Washington wasn’t about to let the guy who they think was their best defenseman (he wasn’t) walk in free agency. You pay to keep guys. But boy, they sure do like paying premiums for their own players.
Let’s take, for example, the T.J. Oshie deal, another one of those contracts where everyone said it would be a problem a few years down the line. They gave a 30-year-old eight years at $5.75 million after he shot 23 percent over 68 games and tacked seven goals onto his all-time career high, set the season before. Then this year, huh, he shot a lot closer to his career average and, despite playing six additional games, also scored 15 fewer goals.
You can defend it now, because they won the Cup and Oshie was pretty damn good in the run-up to that championship, but three years from now, when Oshie’s 34, what does that contract look like? Probably not great, right? Which is not ideal, because that puts you only halfway through the deal.
And that doesn’t mean Oshie is anything resembling a bad player at his position. He is, in fact, very good, and moreover that $5.75 million AAV is kinda team-friendly right now. Not so much three, four, five years down the line, but absolutely team-friendly right now even if 18 goals in 74 games is fairly disappointing.
But the thing with the Carlson contract is that it is in no way team-friendly, and even if you’re a big believer that Carlson is a great No. 1 defenseman (he’s not) there’s little to suggest he can ever live up to the terms of this deal.
Again, he’s coming off a career year, but one that is so far outside the realms of what he’s been able to do in the past. Carlson is a few years younger than Oshie was when he signed his deal (which is probably what helped keep Oshie’s AAV down) so he got the full benefit of being able to max out his value. Forget about three, four, five years down the line. This contract is an overpay on Day 1, and it doesn’t begin to make sense from a practical standpoint.
That’s not to say I truly don’t understand the impulse here if you’re Washington. First, this is a win-now team, because its ability to be competitive ends when Ovechkin, Backstrom, and certainly Holtby hit a wall. That’s definitely going to happen well before this Carlson deal comes to an end, and there’s probably going to be someone dumb enough to take it of Washington’s hands in 2023 because the cap will be like $89 million by then and the rebuilding Capitals will retain salary. Who cares!
Second, even if you don’t think Carlson is worth this money (he isn’t!), if he hits the open market and goes elsewhere, that creates a vacuum on the blue line that needs to be filled. Not that I would ever say winning the Cup is a curse for any team, but it does create something of an expectation of competition, and you absolutely couldn’t sell your fanbase on letting Carlson walk when you’d still need to find a replacement for him; the next-best UFA defenseman on the market come July 1 is, I dunno, Toby Enstrom? You can get him for way less than $8 million but you can’t sell that to people who just bought $150 worth of Stanley Cup Champions merch from shop dot nhl dot com.
Third, maybe, is that you can easily sell yourself on a guy who eats big minutes (even if he doesn’t do as much with them as he maybe should, based on reputation and now, his take-home pay) if you are also bringing back his partner from that Cup run. Michael Kempny has, as of this writing, received a multi-year offer from Washington and is weighing it. If you can keep a pairing that effective together, and also keep Kempny’s AAV down, that is probably a little more palatable. But that depends on a lot of factors outside this contract, which again, was not particularly advisable.
Let’s put it this way: Of the 57 guys who have played at least 5,000 minutes over the past three seasons, Carlson’s ability to contribute goals above the replacement level is a little above the middle of the pack — 23rd in the league — at 2.52 per 82 games. That puts him in the same neighborhood as Anton Stralman (who’s a very good defenseman) and Dmitry Orlov (also good, but certainly not regarded on the same level as his teammate).
It’s hard to argue Carlson isn’t a top-30 defenseman in the league, which is to say he’s a clear No. 1. But he’s certainly on the lower end of that top 30, and he’s no longer being paid like it. Moreover, if you were looking for a Carlson replacement — and this was something I said during the playoffs — Orlov might reasonably have been someone worth trying in that role. (This is to say nothing of the fact that Matt Niskanen was the Capitals’ best defenseman the last two seasons, but it’s definitely worth noting that he, uh, was.)
Carlson appears to contribute more than those other two guys in his GAR neighborhood because he has the benefit of playing on arguably the best No. 1 power play unit in the post-cap NHL, though I would certainly also hear arguments for the Sharks four or five years ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Carlson joins Oshie as guys who are good players but happened to have insane-production seasons the year they were going RFA when they got a good chunk of their scoring from being on that power play. Nearly half of all Carlson’s points came on that man advantage this season (32 of 68), and while being a guy who can produce on the power play has value, it’s also important to contextualize these things when assessing a player’s actual value.
Again, the Caps really weren’t in an enviable position here. Someone was gonna pay Carlson a ton of money and there were no other good replacement options on the market except, perhaps, via trade (which would have been difficult to pursue). Just like Chicago a few years ago when they overpaid for Kane and Toews, they couldn’t afford to just let those guys walk, for a litany of reasons.
But also like Kane and Toews, it’s hard to be sure they could really afford to keep them either.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.