by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.
Rookie defenseman John Carlson was tossed into the fray of the Hershey Bears’ playoff run with the hopes that he would make an immediate impact.
Bears forward Andrew Gordon can vouch for just how heavy that impact can be. Gordon had the misfortune of finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Game 6 of the East Division finals vs. Wilkes/Barre-Scranton.
Specifically, Gordon was in front of the Penguins’ net on a power play when a hard blast off Carlson’s stick crashed into his skate.
"It left a dent in my laces, that’s for sure," Gordon marveled days later. "If John is going to be shooting from there, I have to know it’s coming."
Then again, a little bit of an X-factor can be a great ingredient for a postseason push. Carlson, Washington’s first-round pick in 2008, has certainly been a catalytic addition for the Bears.
Hershey has rolled into the Eastern Conference finals vs. Providence primarily on the strength of as talented a group of forwards as there is in the league. That element, along with the lava-hot play of goalie Michal Neuvirth, might have been enough to carry the team even farther.
But what the Bears needed was a playmaking defenseman with a fresh set of legs, a cannon shot and an aggressive offensive attitude who could easily be dropped onto the power play point.
Hello, John Carlson.
"I think that’s one thing we lacked on the back end was that big shot. He brings that element to play," said Bears coach Bob Woods. "He’s a confident kid. He knows he can play. He doesn’t let the pressure get to him."
Carlson, 19, joined Hershey at the conclusion of a junior season in London (OHL) in which he contributed 16 goals and 60 assists. On the night before Game 1 of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton series, Gordon and roommate Dean Arsene had the rookie over for a homemade dinner of salad and sausage.
Arsene, also a defenseman, knew he’d be paired with the newcomer. He used the social gathering to remind Carlson to stay calm and keep the lines of communication open.
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous (about Carlson) before Game 1," Arsene said. "A lot of times with first-rounders, you never know how they are going to act. They think they are better than everyone else. He came in and played immediately well."
Carlson watched the last game of the Bears-Phantoms opening round series from the stands before Woods nudged him into the lineup for Game 1 of the Penguins skirmish. By Game 2 Carlson was on the score sheet with his first AHL marker.
"I was a bit nervous. I didn’t know what my role was going to be. I didn’t have much of a choice but to buckle down and do the best I can," Carlson said.
Woods backed up his confidence in his prospect by matching Carlson and Arsene against the Penguins’ first line after Bears veteran defenseman Tyler Sloan was recalled to Washington early in the series.
"He was battling hard in the corners. He’s a smart player, with vision," Arsene said.
"It was definitely a better level of hockey than I was used to playing. It was going to be a test. Playoffs are a nervous time," Carlson said of his initial playoff observations. "I didn’t think it was anything I couldn’t do. But I knew it was going to be tough on me."
Carlson is used to that, and it’s made his progress all that much sweeter.
He was born in Natick, Mass., and his family moved to New Jersey when he was 7 or 8. At age 15 his development picked up when he started battling often-older opponents in Junior A.
But Carlson started to grow into a body that now measures 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and began putting a shot that he refined on the driveway of his home to use beating goalies. He made the move to Indiana of the USHL, where two years ago he bloomed into a scoring threat that produced 12 goals and 31 helpers in 59 games.
"I guess you kind of get lucky, get a break here or there," Carlson modestly said of his development. "It’s been a whirlwind, really."
Learning how to properly allocate his energy throughout that process has been a key. Woods said he wasn’t particularly nervous about putting a rookie defenseman into a playoff lineup. But he added that young workhorses like Carlson tend to play a ton of minutes in juniors and have to manage their energy to survive.
In the AHL, Woods said rookies have to understand they’ll be getting a lot fewer minutes, but have to exert themselves for every tick of the clock.
"You see a lot of times with young kids they learn to pace themselves because they can at that level," Woods said. "You try to get them going full tilt. He’s not afraid to mix it up. He gets right in there, throws his weight around."
Carlson said the pace of the AHL hasn’t left him much choice but to keep up.
"I think it’s just the transition game (that’s the biggest adjustment)," he said. "Everything matters more. Here, one bad decision and the puck is in your net. You can kind of float around in juniors. You can’t do that here. You have to be in the game at all times. It’s just a matter of preparation."
After the Bears clinched the taut series over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with a Game 7 win, Carlson said he tried to let the vets do the heavy whooping-it-up while he stayed in the background.
Considering his potential difference-making capability, it’s hard to imagine him staying in those shadows for long.
"You try to listen to the older guys, let them do the talking. You try to play your role as much as possible," he said. "I just think I’m playing pretty well. I fit in. I think I can contribute and keep getting better."