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Matt Carle had a truly remarkable season in 2010-11.

Superficially, what he did may not seem that extraordinary.  After all, his plus-30 is a good number, but four Flyers defensemen were in double-digits in plus/minus and Carle was a plus-19 last year.  Forty points represents impressive output, but Carle managed 35 the year before and 42 in 2006-07.

The most interesting thing about Carle’s season is where his points came from.

To explain why Carle’s season was so remarkable, we need to leave him for a moment and look at how top offensive defenders record their points, and how it differs from forwards.

Unsurprisingly, high-scoring forwards typically score more than high-scoring defensemen.  Here are the average scoring totals for the league’s 30 highest-scoring forwards and defensemen last season:

  • Forwards: 79GP – 31G – 46A – 77PTS, plus-8
  • Defensemen: 78GP – 11G – 36A – 47PTS, plus-2

There’ aren’t any major surprises in those numbers.  The one item of interest is that the forwards tend to have a very good plus/minus while defenders are just slightly above break-even.  More interesting, though, is how those point totals break down:

  • Forwards: 50.2 even-strength, 1.2 shorthanded, 26.0 on the power play
  • Defensemen: 24.6 even-strength, 0.6 shorthanded, 21.7 on the power play

At even-strength, the top defensemen score at roughly half the rate of the top forwards.  It’s the same thing while short-handed.  On the power-play, however, the drop is minimal, with the defenders seeing a drop of less than 20%.

Here it is again, this time broken down as a percentage of total points:

  • Forwards: 64.9% EV, 1.6% SH, 33.6% PP
  • Defensemen: 52.6% EV, 1.3% SH, 46.4% PP

Because defensemen are far more reliant on the power play for their scoring totals than forwards are, it follows that they’re also more vulnerable to fluctuations – reduced ice-time from the coach, changes in strategy, or a simple drop-off in the talent around them.

All of this brings us back to Matt Carle.  In 2006-07, he recorded 42 points for the San Jose Sharks.  He played 4:36 per night on the man advantage, and recorded 26 of his points there.  The following year, he dropped to eight points on the power play, and 15 overall, while seeing his ice-time drop to just over 3:00 per game.  His performance that first season had created the unrealistic expectation that he was ready to be a major offensive contributor at the age of 22.

Now, at 26, things have changed a bit.  He’s had two solid offensive seasons in a row.  The really remarkable thing, though, is where the points came from last season.  Carle’s 40 points ranked him 28th among NHL defensemen last season – but 38 of those points came at even-strength. and just two on the power play.  Nobody else in the top-30 had fewer than 14 power play points.  In fact, those 38 even-strength points led all NHL defensemen last season.

The totals may not have been spectacular, but how Carle got to them was.