Saturday, April 26, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Connor Carrick

“I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.”
-- Albert Einstein

When defenseman Connor Carrick was taken 137th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, chances are that fans of the Washington Capitals did not think too long or too hard about whether Carrick would be the answer to depth concerns on the Capitals blue line.  They might have given less thought to the possibility that barely a year later he would be in the starting lineup on opening night of the 2013-2014 season against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

But there he was, the native of Orland Park, IL, taking the ice about 30 miles from his hometown against the defending Stanley Cup champions.  It was not the most auspicious of debuts.  On his second NHL shift he was outmuscled by Brandon Bollig in front of the Washington net where Bollig collected a rebound and stuffed it into the Capitals’ net for the first goal of the season.  Then, in the third period, his touch pass intended for Alex Ovechkin was picked off, allowing the Blackhawks to break the other way and score the tying goal in what would be a 6-4 Chicago win.

Carrick would record his first NHL goal in the Caps’ next game, their home opener against Calgary, on a breakaway in the second period to start a comeback from a 3-0 deficit in what would be a 5-4 Gimmick win.  But after his third game he was reassigned to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  One might have thought that Carrick had his cup o’ coffee with the big club and that he would spend the rest of the season in his apprenticeship with the Bears.

That was the case until January.  Having participated in the World Junior Championships in Sweden where he had three assists in five games for the United States, he was recalled to the Caps to fill in during a stretch of five games in seven days.  He stayed for the rest of the regular season.  He would finish 27th in games played by rookie defensemen (34) and 38th in average ice time (15:58) hardly insignificant numbers for a fifth-round draft pick barely a year removed from his draft class.  In fact, only six defensemen in his draft class have more games played than Carrick, all of them drafted in the first round (Olli Maatta, Hampus Lindholm, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba, and Cody Ceci).

If there was a fault line in Carrick’s game in his rookie season it was the difference between playing in the friendly confines of Verizon Center versus donning the white jerseys on the road.  In 16 home games Carrick was 1-4-5, minus-1 playing 16:13 a game.  On the road he was 0-1-1, minus-8, while playing 15:45 a night in 18 road games.  That lone road point was a secondary assist in the fifth goal of what would be a 5-0 win by the Caps over Montreal at Bell Centre on January 25th.

Fearless’ Take… Among rookie defensemen Connor Carrick finished in the top-30 in games played (34), points (6), and shooting percentage (3.8…ok, it was one goal on 26 shots).  He finished even or better in 22 of 34 games.  Of 303 defensemen having dressed for games in the regular season, Carrick was the sixth youngest of the group.  Carrick turned 20 on the last day of the regular season.

Cheerless’ Take… There wasn’t much fancy about his stats, eh, cuz?  Of 230 defensemen dressing for at least 25 percent of their teams’ games, Carrick was 210th in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (43.9) and 217th in Fenwick-for percentage (42.8).  His shots-for percentage was dead last in that group (40.4).  Poor kid.  The team gave him a pocket knife to go fight a grizzly bear.

Odd Carrick Fact… There were 45 rookie defensemen who dressed for ten or more games this season, including Connor Carrick.  Only six were on ice for fewer goals-for per game than Carrick.  He was third on his own team (0.44), behind Alexander Urbom (0.45) and Nate Schmidt (0.79).

Game to Remember… January 31st versus Detroit.  The Capitals were sinking like a stone through the standings.  Having lost two in a row and 15 of their previous 20 games (5-9-6), the Caps went into their January 31st contest with the Detroit Red Wings in 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings.  The Caps got the Red Wings running around in their own end in the fifth minute of the first period.  Casey Wellman took a pass from Jason Chimera and curled off at the top of the left wing circle before throwing the puck at the net.  The puck was redirected wide and off the end boards.  Connor Carrick jumped up from the opposite side and beat Tomas Jurco to the puck, backhanding it through the crease where Joel Ward took a whack at it.  His shot caromed off the far post but onto the stick of Chimera, who buried the shot to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.  The teams exchanged the next four goals, Detroit closing to within 3-2 at the 13:30 mark of the second period.  Just 19 seconds after the second Detroit goal, though, Carrick jumped into the play once more, darting down the right side and beating Joakim Andersson to a loose puck in the right wing circle.  From the bottom of the circle Carrick wristed the puck in front where Joel Ward finished the play to give the Caps a 4-2 lead in what would be a 6-5 overtime win over the Red Wings.  It was Carrick’s first and, to date, only multi-point game of his brief career.

Game to Forget… January 15th versus Pittsburgh.  The Caps had just taken a 3-2 lead in the ninth minute of the third period against the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.  Three minutes later, though, Brandon Sutter had the puck in the Caps’ end in the left wing circle with Carrick defending.  Sutter moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand and stepped past Carrick to get a passing lane to the crease.  Carrick was a split second too late to keep Sutter from sending a pass to Jussi Jokinen who batted the puck off Dmitry Orlov’s stick and over goalie Michal Neuvirth to tie the game.  It was the second time Carrick was left in a bad spot.  Earlier in the game he was trying to defend Taylor Pyatt in front of the Capitals net.  Giving away five inches and 45 pounds in the skirmish, Carrick merely bounced off, leaving Pyatt all alone in front to take a pass from Olli Maatta and snap it past Neuvirth to tie the game at 2-2.  The Penguins went on to win, 4-3.

In the end…

The 2013-2014 season was an unexpected sort of learning experience for Connor Carrick.  Few might have anticipated that a fifth round draft pick in 2012 out of the U.S. National Team Development Program and with a year of junior hockey would be skating significant minutes in the NHL.  However, that Carrick would be one of only nine defensemen drafted in 2012 to dress for an NHL game says something about the Capitals’ depth at the position as much as it does Carrick’s talent.  Carrick might have benefitted from a playoff stretch run with the Hershey Bears, but the Caps left him off the AHL playoff-eligible list while, curiously, he played in only four of the Caps’ last 13 regular season games. 

It is hard to know what the takeaway is for Carrick from this season.  Was it a learning experience, or was it a learning opportunity lost?  Those were things not in his control, making those things that he could control – his performance in games in which he was called upon – frustrating to watch at times.  The talent seems to be there, but on too many nights he seemed overmatched.  For Connor Carrick the future might have come just a bit too soon.

Grade: C+

photo: Bruce Bennett