Why Carlson has the most to smile about in wake of Ekman-Larsson’s extension

Throw past projections out the window, because after Oliver Ekman-Larsson agreed to an eight-year, $66-million extension with the Coyotes, free agent-to-be John Carlson is set to become the next $8-million defender.

When the Capitals were parading the Stanley Cup through the streets of Washington on Tuesday, it was likely impossible to wipe the smile off of defenseman John Carlson’s face. After all, there he was, celebrating reaching the NHL’s pinnacle with many of the same teammates who’ve been through the heartbreak of past playoff failures. 

But with the news of Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s verbal agreement to a new eight-year, $66-million extension with the Arizona Coyotes, the Stanley Cup celebration may not have been the only reason that pending free agent Carlson was sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

You see, at the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, the prevailing belief was that the Capitals’ top defender was in line for a sizeable raise that could see his salary rise significantly next season. For Carlson to eclipse the $6.5-million mark didn’t seem at all far-fetched. And then came the 2017-18 campaign, and as the season wore on and Carlson maintained a career-best points pace, the estimates for his next contract rose into $7 million-plus territory. When he finished as the league’s highest-scoring defender with 68 points in 82 games, it was safe to add another quarter-million to that estimate, particularly in a thin free-agent market. And after he earned his keep as the No. 1 rearguard on a Stanley Cup champion, it was fair to suggest Carlson could add another half-million to that and consider $8 million as the high-water mark for his next deal.

After Ekman-Larsson’s pact, however, it seems safe to suggest Carlson will eclipse $8 million per season when he signs on the dotted line. The reason for that, of course, is that when we’re attempting to find out what a player may be worth, we often dig into contract comparables, and when close parallels can be drawn between two players, a new deal for one often stands to set the parameters the other. 

Consider Connor McDavid’s contract with the Edmonton Oilers last summer, a monumental eight-year, $100-million deal that pays an average of $12.5 million per season. That contract moved the second-contract goalposts for young, high-scoring NHLers. Case in point: Jack Eichel’s subsequent eight-year, $80-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres, a deal which came roughly four months later, wouldn’t have been inked at as high a price without McDavid’s contract. Prior to McDavid’s signing, the estimated cap hit for Eichel was in the $8-million range, but Edmonton’s big-money bet ensured that Buffalo would have to follow suit. The same goes for McDavid’s teammate Leon Draisaitl, who put pen to paper on an eight-year, $68-million contract several weeks after the Oilers captain, and Nashville Predators pivot Ryan Johansen’s value almost certainly crept out of the $7-million range as a direct result of McDavid boosting the value of talented young players throughout the league.

In the case of Carlson, however, when it came to top-tier free-agent defenders, the best comparables, and the players who had helped set the new bar, were considered a different caliber of defenseman prior to Ekman-Larsson’s signing. Dustin Byfuglien’s five-year, $38-million deal in February 2016 made him the first blueliner to sign for more than $7 million per season since P.K. Subban back in August 2014. Aaron Ekblad’s deal later that summer, an eight-year deal with a $7.5-million average cap hit, changed the climate for young stud defenders. And then the deals signed by Victor Hedman (eight years at $7.875 million per season), Brent Burns (eight years at $8 million annually) and Marc-Edouard (eight years with a $7-million cap hit) over the next 12 months gave the high-class rearguards contemplating the open market a new set of guidelines for their deals.

The difficulty for Carlson, however, was making the case that he deserved as much or more than established all-star defensemen such as Byfuglien, Hedman or Burns. Sure, money changes as the salary cap rises and percentage of the cap can be as important as actual value, but still, one figured Carlson might have had a tough time competing with that crowd. Byfuglien was the fourth-highest scoring defender across the four seasons leading up to his deal and had three top-15 Norris Trophy finishes on his resume. Hedman inked his deal as a two-time top-10 Norris contender and he had just been the No. 1 defenseman on a team that had appeared in consecutive Eastern Conference finals. And Burns, well, he was coming off of a career-best 75-point season in which he finished third in Norris voting. He also went on to win the Norris mere months after inking his deal and finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, so that was the caliber of defenseman Carlson was up against if he was going to command an $8 million annual average value.

What it takes to earn $8 million annually and Carlson’s chances of landing a deal that rich changed, though, when Ekman-Larsson’s agreement was made public. In fact, statistically, one could say the $8 million-plus argument is now readymade for Carlson. And that’s not a slight against Ekman-Larsson. Not in the least. It’s just that if we compare the two defensemen over the past six seasons of their careers — Carlson playing those years on his six-year, $23.8-million pact and Ekman-Larsson playing all but one on his current six-year, $33-million deal — the level of production from the two primarily offensive rearguards is fairly similar. 

Since the 2012-13 campaign, Ekman-Larsson ranks fourth with 88 goals and 15th with 247 points while maintaining a 0.55 points-per-game rate. He also netted 44 power-play goals, 111 power-play points and averaged 24:52 on the Coyotes blueline. Carlson, meanwhile, falls into a tie for 13th with 60 goals over the past six campaigns, but ranks 12th with 258 points to go along with a 0.61 points-per-game rate. He also has 17 power-play tallies and 105 points with the man advantage, and his average ice time has been 23:42 with the Capitals. The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach slightly favors Carlson in overall scoring, too, as he has Ekman-Larsson beat by eight points in 26 fewer games over the past three seasons, and Carlson has outscored Ekman-Larsson with the man advantage since 2015-16, as well.

True as it may be that those numbers don’t take underlying statistics and defensive play into account, neither are truly being kept aboard for their play in their own zone. And even if we were to compare the two, the two have been similar over the bulk of their careers. Carlson has a career 49.5 Corsi for percentage, while Ekman-Larsson sits at a slightly healthier 50.4 percent. Both have also fluctuated when it comes to deployment but float at around the same split of offensive and defensive starts over their respective careers, too. And while Ekman-Larsson received Norris Trophy votes in four straight campaigns from 2012-13 to 2015-16, Carlson finished top-10 in 2014-15 and could finish as high as top-five this season. That’s not to mention only one of the two has a Stanley Cup ring, and Carlson was a monster with five goals and 20 points in 24 games en route to the Capitals’ title. Ekman-Larsson, meanwhile, has one post-season and 16 games of playoff experience to his name. Regardless of whether that should matter, it is bound to come up when Carlson is at the negotiating table.

So, in a season that has given Carlson a lot to smile about, the Ekman-Larsson contract is the cherry on top. And the next time we see Carlson flash those pearly whites, it’ll be when he’s smiling all the way to the bank.

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