While he possesses such a tantalizing grasp of a wide array of skills, one of his greatest assets at this early stage of his career has been his resiliency -- something not often associated with 21-year-olds at his position.
Carlson struggled at times for the Washington Capitals during a Game 3 loss to the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. He had a couple of lapses in the opening 40 minutes of Game 4 as well.
And yet there he was in the third period and overtimes, helping the Capitals stage a dramatic comeback from a 3-0 deficit. Marcus Johansson deflected Carlson's shot to tie the game at three, and then Carlson might have been the best player on either team after the horn at the end of the third period sounded.
"One thing I've noticed is that he's the type of guy that if he makes a mistake he usually responds well to being called on it or being yelled at or something like that," said Carlson's defense partner Karl Alzner. "I wouldn't say he's had bad games or anything like that, but he is the type of guy if something happens he can forget about it. It might bug him for a couple of shifts, but it is pretty remarkable how he can drop it."
Not only did Carlson play well in the overtimes, he played a lot. He ended up logging more than 10 minutes in the first extra session alone, and finished the game with a team-high 34:50 of ice time -- more than six minutes greater than his previous career-high in the NHL.
"I had a tough stretch in the second period [of Game 4]," Carlson said. "I started out good and I was shooting a lot more and felt more comfortable. I finally got my legs underneath me and I'm glad to see that we could battle back."
While other players appeared to be tired or trying conserve energy as the game wore on, Carlson continued to be aggressive and jump into the play offensively. Some of that could be attributed to youth, but a lot of it is because of the way he's built. He had the body of a 25-year-old hockey player when he was 19, and he's proven at the OHL and AHL levels that he can handle 28-30 minutes a night with ease.
"He's a great skater," defenseman Scott Hannan said. "When you can skate like that and play those type of minutes, they're tough minutes to play. Anytime you start creeping up into that range you get tired, you've got to take care of yourself. But he's a great skater and it makes it that much easier and he sees the ice well."
It is also worth pointing out that he wouldn't be asked to play all those minutes without having earned the trust of the coaching staff. Not every coach would be willing to play a 21-year-old for more than half of an overtime period in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Bruce Boudreau doesn't think twice.
"I think a lot of it had to do with the situations -- matching their lines type of thing," Boudreau said. "[Assistant coach Bob Woods] does that and he knows I have total confidence in both John and Karl, so when it is needed for them to be out there they go out there."
This is not the first time Carlson has proven he can move past some temporary struggles. Earlier this season he played through a leg injury after being hit by a shot. The Capitals were short on the blue line at the time and he was able to fight through the injury, and while his play suffered a bit at first he adjusted and was effective.
Carlson also "hit the wall" last season while playing for Hershey in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He had played a ton of games in the past two seasons -- for London in the Ontario Hockey League, for his country in the world junior championships, for the Bears in two Calder Cup Playoffs and for the Capitals in the second half of the 2009-10 season and the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He wasn't the same dominant player near the end of the conference finals and the start of the Calder Cup Finals, and it looked like being asked to log so many minutes in so many high-level hockey games was starting to wear him down.
Carlson rebounded, and again was one of Hershey's top players as the Bears came back from a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the Texas Stars and claim a second straight AHL title. Another year of offseason training and more NHL experience has Carlson better equipped to survive a long postseason, but given his resilience he'd probably figure out a way even if his body was betraying him.
"As the year progressed, you feel more and more comfortable in this team," Carlson said. "I think it has been a good year, but it has been a learning experience for me. It is something to keep taking forward."