LAS VEGAS — It was right before the start of the season when John Carlson’s agent first met with the Washington Capitals in hopes of negotiating a new contract for his client.
At the time, Carlson was coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. The Capitals, meanwhile, had just suffered another post-season disappointment and were taking the necessary first steps towards a retool — if not a rebuild.
Publicly, the two sides agreed to put off all talks until the end of the season. Privately, some wondered if this was a sign that Carlson was heading to free agency.
“His preference was to stay here,” said agent Rick Curran, “But I told him, ‘They’re tight to the cap. They’re not going to be able to sign you right now, so there’s no sense in making a lot of noise because there’s nothing they can do.’”
“There’s enough going on in this league on a day-to-day basis where I just wanted to focus on my teammates and try to win a Stanley Cup,” said Carlson. “That was my goal. That’s all we really wanted to do.”
Fast forward nine months and it’s pretty much mission accomplished.
The Capitals, whom many picked to miss the playoffs, are heading into Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday with a chance to win their first Stanley Cup. And much of it is because of Carlson, who followed up a 37-point campaign in 2016-17 by leading all defencemen with 68 points in the regular season and another 19 in 23 playoff games.
Carlson was ultimately snubbed in the Norris Trophy nominations. But after the year he’s had, there’s no question that a much bigger prize should be waiting for the pending free agent on July 1.
The only question is who will be giving it to him: Washington or some other team?
“Everyone knows John Tavares is the top guy, but everyone also recognizes that John Carlson is the second guy and definitely the top defenceman,” said Curran. “There are a lot of teams out there that need a defenceman more than John Tavares.”
Working in Carlson’s favour is that among free-agent defencemen, he is in a class unto himself. The closest to him is Detroit’s Mike Green (33 points) or New York Islanders’ Thomas Hickey (25 points) — and they are not even really close to a player who scored 15 goals and 68 points.
As a coveted right-shot defenceman, Carlson can do it all. He can score, as evidenced by his 15 goals. He can man the power play, where he tied for 12th in the league with 32 points. He can kill penalties, where he was second on the team in usage.
That all-around game is why head coach Barry Trotz said the 28-year-old has joined Norris Trophy finalists Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty and the league’s other top defencemen.
“I think early in the season with Matt Niskanen being out was real key for John,” said Trotz. “He understood that he had to play 30 minutes and he was able to manage everything … and without John being able to play those 30 minutes a night early in the year, I don’t know if we’re even at the .500 level for the first 30 games.”
In the playoffs, he’s been ever better. Carlson is averaging close to 26 minutes a game, has a plus-10 rating and has scored five goals and 19 points, including two goals and one assist in the first four games of the final.
Add it up and Carlson is in line for a huge payday — likely double the US$4 million he earned this season.
But while it is believed that the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and several other teams have considerable interest in signing him, the Capitals will get the first — and longest — look at Carlson.
The problem is that even with the cap rising to an estimated $80 million in 2018-19, there is little wiggle room under the team’s salary cap to fit him into their plans.
On the blueline, Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik are already on the books for more than $16 million combined. And forwards Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly, as well as backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, are in need of contract extensions.
It would take some creativity — potentially buying out the 37-year-old Orpik or trading Niskanen and/or Andre Burakovsky — to fit what is believed to be an $8-million asking price into the roster.
And yet, if Washington doesn’t step up to the plate, someone else mostly likely will.
“John Carlson has already admitted that he would love to stay in Washington with his teammates,” Curran said of the nine-year veteran, who was drafted 27th overall by the Capitals in 2008. “That’s his team. But there’s a lot of different parts moving around there. At the end of the day, Brian (MacLellan, Washington’s GM) has first shot at keeping him. The ball’s in their court.
“Having said that, he’s been a good soldier and somewhat underpaid for the last couple of years and now it’s his turn (to earn some real money). If the Washington Capitals step up and find a way to be fair with him and give him what he’s earned, then he’ll stay. Why wouldn’t he?
“But if they can’t, then he’ll look at his options. And at the moment it seems that there’s a number of viable options available.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @michael_traikos
FREE AGENCY POOL IS DEEP WITH TALENT
Even if John Tavares and John Carlson end up re-signing with their current teams, this is shaping up to be one of the more interesting summers when it comes to free agents.
Aside from the two big fish, here’s a look at five of the biggest names available.
Joe Thornton, C, San Jose
2017-18 salary: $8 million
Thornton missed the entire playoffs. But with 13 goals and 36 points in 47 regular season games, he still showed that when healthy he could contribute.
Rick Nash, LW, Boston
2017-18 salary: $8.2 million
Buyer beware: Father Time seems to be catching up to Nash, who managed only 21 goals and 34 points in a combined 71 games with the Rangers and Bruins.
Paul Stastny, C, Winnipeg
2017-18 salary: $7.5 million
Getting traded from the Blues to the Jets was the best thing to happen to Stastny, who was a huge contributor in the playoffs with six goals and 15 points in 17 games.
James Neal, LW, Vegas
2017-18 salary: $5 million
The “Real Deal” had a real good season with the Golden Knights, scoring 25 goals and 44 points, including another six goals and 11 points in 19 playoff games so far.
James van Riemsdyk, LW, Toronto
2017-18 salary: $5 million
The Maple Leafs winger tied for 13th in the league with a career-best 36 goals, which was all the more impressive considering he averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game.