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The rise of John Carlson, and 4 other NHL defensemen playing more than ever

These blue liners have all seen major increases in playing time this season.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game Five Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After one of the Washington Capitals’ victories earlier this season, defenseman John Carlson admitted adjusting to his new workload would be a process. Washington lost key defenders Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt, and Karl Alzner over the offseason, so the team has had little choice but to put more on Carlson’s plate.

“I don’t know if there’s a getting used to it,” Carlson said. “You’ve got to always manufacture energy and make sure you’re there because little things here and there, guys are too good up and down lineups throughout the league. I just think it’s a mind-set thing you keep getting better at, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Last season, Carlsson finished 57th among all NHL defensemen in playing time with an average of 22:43 per game. This season he’s up to fourth at 26:49 per game, less than 30 seconds away from Ryan Suter’s league-high figure. It’s put the 28-year-old under the microscope in his ninth NHL season, when he’s just months away from unrestricted free agency.

The results so far have largely been positive. Carlson is tied for third among all NHL defensemen with 18 points, and he ranks 21st at the position in overall Game Score, according to Corsica. The downside comes from the overall team results: Washington’s 5-on-5 Corsi is just 49.4 percent with Carlson on the ice. In those minutes, the Caps have been outscored, 20-14, per Natural Stat Trick.

However, it’s worth noting that many of those minutes have meant carrying the aging Brooks Orpik. The contrast in Carlson’s numbers with and without Orpik this season is massive.

Carlson with and without Orpik

Players 5v5 Corsi 5v5 GF%
Players 5v5 Corsi 5v5 GF%
Carlson + Orpik 44.48% 42.96
Carlson, no Orpik 59.57% 54.84
Orpik, no Carlson 44.17 46.1

When they’re together, they’ve struggled. When Orpik is away from Carlson, he’s struggled. But anytime the Capitals have moved Carlson away from Orpik, he’s done noticeably better. It’s fair to say that Barry Trotz could put his best defender in a more favorable position by keeping him separated from Orpik.

But adjusting to an extra four-plus minutes per game from the previous season remains a work-in-progress. As Carlson said, there’s only so much you can do to handle the wear and tear of playing 27 minutes per game over an 82-game NHL slate (plus preseason, playoffs, etc.). We’ll have to see how it goes.

Carlson isn’t the only defender being asked to play a lot more this season, though. Here’s a run down of some other blue liners eating more minutes than ever.

Erik Johnson, Avalanche

2016-17 ATOI: 22:05
2017-18 ATOI: 26:33

Johnson has been one of Colorado’s top defensemen since joining the team in 2011, but coach Jared Bednar has taken his usage to the next level this season. He’s gone from one of several top-four defensemen with similar playing time to the Avalanche’s clear No. 1. Nobody else on the team is within four minutes of his average ice time.

The logic here seems obvious: The Avalanche are a thin defensive team, so why not lean more heavily on your best players? The hope is that young blue liners like Samuel Girard, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Bigras, and/or Andrei Mironov will be able to take on more responsibility over time, but for now, playing Johnson more has helped Colorado to a respectable 11-8-2 start this season.

Ivan Provorov, Flyers

2016-17 ATOI: 21:59
2017-18 ATOI: 24:57

The Flyers asked a lot of Provorov, their 2015 first-round pick, as a rookie, and now they’ve quickly elevated him even further to being their No. 1 defenseman in just his second season. He’s playing over three minutes more per game than No. 2 defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, and those two look like the foundation of the Philly blue line for the foreseeable future.

Provorov isn’t dominating yet, but he’s more than holding his own in a substantial role as a 20-year-old. The future is very bright.

Marco Scandella, Sabres

2016-17 ATOI: 21:59
2017-18 ATOI: 24:57

Unlike other players on this list whose new opportunities came with the same team, Scandella’s trade from Minnesota to Buffalo has elevated him into a major role. He’s now the Sabres’ clear No. 2 blue liner behind Rasmus Ristolainen, and coach Phil Housley has used them liberally during the first couple months of the season.

Last season with the Wild, Scandella was just fifth among defenders in ATOI behind Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, and Jonas Brodin. Now on a much thinner team, he’s playing more than ever before.

Alec Martinez, Kings

2016-17 ATOI: 21:38
2017-18 ATOI: 24:23

Coming off a breakout year where Martinez recorded a career-high 39 points, the Kings have continued pushing the veteran defenseman into a larger role. He’s now anchoring his own pairing in over 24 minutes per game, giving Los Angeles a strong defensive one-two with Drew Doughty leading the top pairing.

However, Martinez has struggled a bit in that larger role. He’s near the bottom of the team with a 46.3 percent 5-on-5 Corsi, and he’s on pace for just 16 points over 82 games after nearing reaching 40 last season. His current nine-game point drought is his worst since early 2015.

But the Kings are giving up the second-fewest goals in the league this season, and Martinez is a huge part of that defense. So clearly not everything is bad.