Indiana Ice defenseman John Carlson was considered one of the top draft eligible prospects heading into the 2007-08 season, but his impressive rookie season firmly established him as the top USHL prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Among his distinctions, Carlson was named to the All-USHL Second Team and the USHL All-Rookie Team after finishing second in defenseman scoring with 12 goals and 31 assists. However, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound blueliner is not just offense, as he is also a conscientious defender who plays a physical game.
McKeen's had the opportunity to talk with Carlson just before the end of the regular season and discussed his adjustment to the USHL, his season with the Indiana Ice, playing for Team USA, his preparation in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, and his commitment to the University of Massachusetts.
McKeen's: You have only a few games to go in your rookie season in the USHL and are one of the top three in defenseman scoring in the league. What's helped you adjust so successfully to Tier I junior A hockey?
Carlson: I don't know. I don't really think about it that much, I just get out there and play and if I get points, it happens, and if I don't, it doesn't affect me too much.
McKeen's: What have been some of the biggest adjustments for you coming out of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League into the United States Hockey League?
Carlson: Probably just, overall, the little things. They're all the same height, the same weight, the same style of play, but the guys in the USHL do the little things, every little thing a little bit better. It took a little adjusting in the beginning of the year, but I feel comfortable now.
McKeen's: With the Ice, you guys had a bit of an early start this year with the CCM Classic, playing Quebec and Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. What was that tournament like for you and what were your impressions of the QMJHL teams?
Carlson: Well, at first I thought they were going to blow us right out of the building every night. I'd never saw an OHL or QMJHL games before, and I knew we were confident in our team, we have a good team this year. So, it was real early in the season, they got started a little bit earlier, and we just went up there and said, "Who cares about the outcome, let's just play our game, have some fun, get to know each other," and we played our hearts out. We didn't show too well on the scoreboard, but in both games we definitely had a legitimate shot to win the games. That's all we could ask.
McKeen's: Were you surprised at all with how well you and Omaha both competed with those teams?
Carlson: Yeah, actually, I thought they would blow us out right away, but once we got into the game, you get more confident, and get past the whole, like, "CHL is way better USHL." We played our hearts out.
McKeen's: Ever since early September, and ever since the Fall Classic, Indiana and Omaha have ended up the two teams to beat. How much of a help was it for you guys on the Ice to get started that little bit earlier compared to other teams?
Carlson: Oh, it was good. We started bonding really early and that's why we started out so good at the beginning of the year, because we knew each other a month before everyone else. I mean, it worked out well for all the guys in high school, because we had to be there anyway for school starting. It was just an extra month that we got to bond and skate. After the CCM Classic, we took about a week-and-a-half off of everything and just relaxed and did some team things, like bowling and stuff like that, to relax and get to know each other.
McKeen's: Even before the CCM Classic, you personally ended up playing for Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. What was it like to be named to that team and what was the hockey like at that tournament?
Carlson: Well, it was a good honor to play for Team USA. In any kind of tournament, whether it's World Juniors or whatever, once you put on that jersey, it's just a whole new intensity level. So, I was real ecstatic when I found out about that. When we went out there, it was just a way different style of play. It was good, competitive. A little bit different from The States in little things, like their forecheck and stuff like that. We were kind of like, "Well, what am I doing here?" But, it was fun. I had never played internationally before, so it was a great time.
McKeen's: Tell me more about the nuances in the differences between the North American style that you are used to and what the Europeans brought.
Carlson: They brought a little bit more speed and agility, I'd say. They also have very good hands and had good players beating you from the corners to the net and stuff, so you have to respect that and, also, you've got to play your game, too.
McKeen's: Going back to the AJHL vs. USHL comparison, tell me more about the comparison between both on the ice and off.
Carlson: Just the style, the teams are similar, a little bit less games. You get down in the grind, and everything is a little bit more in the USHL. The trips are a little bit farther, a little bit more games, a little bit harder every weekend. You've got to battle through it.
McKeen's: How much of a jump was it for you personally going from the AJHL to the Hlinka Tournament?
Carlson: I don't know. I just had to play my game and do the best that I could. It was a summer tournament, so I wasn't in tip-top shape like we are now. But, I just said, "Put everything aside and play your hardest."
McKeen's: Who were some of your Team USA teammates that impressed you the most and why?
Carlson: I think, playing with a big guy, A.J. Jenks. He brought a lot of grit to the team. We had a lot of smaller, speedy guys, like Danny Mattson and Nate Dewhurst. They didn't really bring that much physical intensity. So, me and A.J. Jenks had to step it up and get the team riled at some times.
McKeen's: You were also elected to play in the USHL Prospects/All-Star Game, to no surprise. What was that experience like and what do you remember most from it?
Carlson: I think, just, being in that situation and being in that environment. A lot of NHL scouts and coaches were there and you just got to meet them and know them, and they were on the bench with us, so it was a lot of fun.
McKeen's: From the NHL scouting angle, what was it like at the Fall Classic, when there were a number of NHL scouts and dozens and dozens of college scouts?
Carlson: It was a big time. That's probably when teams play the hardest, or are the hardest to play against, because everyone's just, "Oh, I've got to go a million miles an hour, I don't care about anything else, I've just gotta go, I've gotta go." So, you have to adjust to that game style, definitely, and it's different from now. When everyone plays that way, you get caught playing that way, too.
McKeen's: What are some of the areas of your game that you have been focusing on improving the most with the Ice this year?
Carlson: Probably just the little crossovers and pivots, like getting beat out of the corner, and just little stuff like that. I've got to work on staying a little stronger in that region of the game.
McKeen's: On the flipside, what do you consider are the strengths of your game already?
Carlson: I think I know the game pretty well, when to jump in and when to jump out of the play. I like shooting the puck from the point and playing powerplay. I mean, who doesn't? But, I really enjoy that stuff. I like the offensive game, but there's nothing better than a big one-on-on coming down at the end of the game and you stop it, or a two-on-one. So, both ends, I like.
McKeen's: You have committed to UMass, verbally committing last March. When did you first start talking with "Toot" (head coach Don Cahoon) and what made you decide UMass was right for you?
Carlson: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to play in the Hockey East. Since I was born in Massachusetts, I always wanted to go back there. I just thought that was the best choice for me. I didn't really want to go to one of those big, big-time schools like BC or BU, you know what I mean? Stuff like that. I was real, real comfortable with the coaching staff and they really sold it to me. I felt like I was right there and not just a player that they wanted, but a player that they were going to invest in and take a complete interest in. So, it worked out well.
McKeen's: Where in Massachusetts were you born and how did you end up in New Jersey?
Carlson: I was born in Marlboro. I moved to New Jersey when I was about five or six, just because my parents changed jobs.
McKeen's: Tell me about the 2006-07 season with the Jr. Rockets and how playing in that league (the AJHL), and that team, helped prepare you for this.
Carlson: I definitely think I improved a lot. If I would have made the jump and it was too big of a jump, I'd have kind of lacked the little things that you need to play at this level, whereas if you go to a league like the "AJ," it's a really good stepping stone to come here, I think. It gets you into junior hockey. It's a great league. I loved playing in it for two years and I would recommend it to anyone, because I think it's really underrated, really. It teaches you the essentials you need.
McKeen's: USHL rosters certainly see more and more players coming out of the AJHL. How did you end up skating for the Jr. Rocket organization in particular, since there are different options out there?
Carlson: It was just, kind of the closest location at first. I loved the coaching staff and the owner there. We all became very good friends and it just seemed right to play there, and our team was great.
McKeen's: Obviously, the 2008 NHL Entry Draft is still a little ways away, but you are ranked high on pretty much every list. Do you ever think about that and what does it feel like to be ranked so high?
Carlson: Oh, it feels great. It's always nice seeing that. You think about it a lot, I can't deny it. But, when you get out on the ice, you can't worry about it. When there's scouts there, you can't think about it, you've just got to play your game and get out there and do your best, every night.
McKeen's: Who are some of the people that have been the most important for you in the development of your hockey career?
Carlson: Probably Danny O'Brien. He was with us since, probably, peewee year in New Jersey. Then we changed coaches my last year to Bob Thornton, and that was also a big help. But, Danny O'Brien, I've been with for the most part. He's stayed close to me and worked with me a lot.
McKeen's: Did you skate with the Jr. Rockets all the way through?
Carlson: When we were peewees and bantams and stuff like that, they were actually junior B back then, so he would make me skate with them sometimes, if we had an off day or something like that. He kind of introduced me to the whole thing.
McKeen's: Lastly, who were or are some of your favorite players, past or present, and why?
Carlson: In the NHL?
McKeen's: Sure, or in other leagues, too.
Carlson: Well, there's so much talent on the ice right now. But, my one guy in the NHL is Ryan Getzlaf. I just like the way he plays, scoring and all that stuff. I mean, I wouldn't base my game off of him, but he's a great player to watch.
McKeen's: I'm getting more and more prospects in interviews who like Ryan Getzlaf. Any particular defensemen that you like or perhaps equate to?
Carlson: Um, well, I'd like to be a Dion Phaneuf. I think he does everything well.