This past weekend in Hershey, I sat near and among pro scouts from the Caps, the Bruins, the Flyers, the Senators, and the Avalanche, and while a press box full of scouts rarely views any individual hockey player with unanimity of assessment, when it comes to John Carlson, I learned, they do. Early on in Saturday night’s game one in the AHL’s Eastern conference finals a scout from a rival NHL Eastern conference team pointed out Carlson’s beyond-his-years savviness in calmly clearing a puck from a difficult spot in his own end against a fast-skating, far more experienced set of checkers from the Providence Bruins.
It was a brief moment of relatively subtle success for Carlson that nonetheless illustrated why so many are so high on the 19-year-old New Jersey native. The Bruins had floated a clearing pass behind Carlson, with a fury of forecheckers in pursuit. Turning his back to the checkers to gather in the puck near the half boards, he paused just before playing it and looked back around to survey his foes’ progress and angles of attack. He then swiftly swirled with the puck and lasered a cross-ice pass through an open lane onto the tape of a teammate. It was a head-on-a-swivel moment, and skillfully executing as he did, with precocious poise, Carlson deftly thwarted a moment of vulverability for a teenager playing in high-pressure, postseason pro hockey, and just the eighth game of his pro hockey career.
It was a moment and play that caught the attention of the scouts, and this blogger. And he’s authored many more such during a remarkable 2008-09 campaign.
After Saturday’s game I had a chance to ask Carlson about his remarkable season.
OFB: You’re little more than a year removed from playing hockey in the USHL. Could you have imagined a year like this one, going from the USHL to playing a top-pairing role for a team in the American Hockey League’s Eastern conference finals?
Carlson: “No, no. The past few years, making the jump from New Jersey to the USHL and then to the OHL (Ontario Hockey League), now to here, it’s just been a whirlwind for me. It feels like it’s gone so fast. I feel like I just turned around and I’m a year older. But I’m just taking it one day at a time now. Obviously, I’m glad to be where I am — Hershey’s a great place, the coaches are great, the city is great. I can’t ask for anything more.
OFB: You had a strong camp last fall in Washington. Did that sort of give you an indication that you were going to have a really special year up in London?
Carlson: I went into camp not knowing anything, really, just trying to bear down and do whatever I can. I thought I did a pretty good job, and that gave me some confidence going back to Junior. We had a great team in Juniors, so that helped my year personally at least. Now here I’m just trying to contribute as much as I can.
OFB: The hockey fans back in Washington know Dale Hunter as a player, from all his years with the Caps. They don’t know him as a coach. If you had to describe him, sum him up as a style of coach, how would you do so?
Carlson: He’s laid back, especially when you’re playing good. He doesn’t like to change things up very much when things are going good. But he gets on you when you’re playing bad and you’re losing. He’s a great coach, especially when it comes to crunch time. He was always having meetings and always being more of like a teacher and a mentor to the guys and a guy to bark out orders behind the bench. That’s always nice. I love playing for him.
He was taking a lot of pride in me and really working with me to become a better player. I still have to work on a lot of my game, like fine-tune everything, but I think he had a huge part in my success, and I couldn’t ask for a better coach, really.
OFB: I know you’re focused on the playoffs right now, but are you at all thinking about 2009-10, maybe with an eye toward competing in the World Juniors with the Americans?
Carlson: No. This is a big time — we’re in the semifinals of the Calder Cup, and that’s what I’m focused on right now. We wanna step out tomorrow and win a game and go up to Providence one-one.