He played for St. Lawrence University from 1981 to 1983 and was drafted 32nd overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. Carlson played all of the 1983-84 season with the Canadiens, but was used mostly as a fighter. He suffered many injuries as a result.
After 1984 Carlson was used sparingly by the Canadiens and was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 1986. A spinal operation caused him to miss the entire 1986-87 season. He returned in 1987-88 but retired after th 1988-89 season.
In the NHL Carlson played in 113 games and scored 7 goals and 11 assists.