When Capitals fans talk about Connor Carrick, it’s usually as a footnote to his highly-touted Plymouth Whalers teammate, first-round draft pick Tom Wilson. Wilson, a behemoth of a power forward, is arguably the fan-favorite prospect in DC right now, and for good reason: after a killer OHL season and solid appearances for Washington’s AHL affiliate Hershey Bears and the Caps themselves in the playoffs, he’s given fans plenty to be excited about.
A little further down the pipeline, though, the Caps have a kid on the Whalers’ blue line who is shaping up to look like quite a steal. Carrick was selected by the Capitals in the 5th round of the 2012 NHL entry draft, 137th overall. Prior to being drafted he played on a highly competitive USNTDP team where he was often overshadowed by defensive big guns like Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei. The knocks to his game were his size (at 5’11” and 185 lbs Carrick is what some would call “undersized”, especially for a defenseman) and his play away from the puck; however, he was considered across the board to be a highly skilled skater with strong puck skills. He was noted for being unwary of physical play, making and taking hits despite his stature, and for having good instincts.
Like with many defensemen, Carrick’s development is expected to take a few years, but there are plenty of reasons Capitals fans should be glad to have him in the system.
Carrick’s hockey career thus far is one long story of him rising to the occasion. As a 15-year-old, he split his season between the Chicago Fury’s U-16 and U-18 teams, posting 22 points in 37 games for the former and 6 points in 22 games for the latter. He had average stat lines for the USNTDP in the two seasons he played there, but had 7 points at the 2011 U-17 World Championship and 4 in the 2012 U-18s, good for 2nd-highest of all American defensemen in both tournaments. (Trouba had the most in 2011; Seth Jones in 2012—not bad guys to come in second to.)
The transition from the NTDP to the OHL is a tough one, and certainly not one Carrick took lightly. During the season, he spoke about his awareness of the difference between the leagues and his focus on making the adjustment to the infamous grind of the CHL, giving himself an adjustment period before he could take his game to the next level.
It worked: after a 16-point first half, Carrick came back after Christmas to tally 28 points in 35 games for a grand total of 44 over the season. (For comparison to current the highest-scoring Capitals defensemen: Mike Green had 39 points in his 18-year-old WHL season; John Carlson had 43 in the USHL; Tomas Kundratek had 23, also in the WHL.)
Most notable, though, is this past season’s OHL playoffs, and the way Carrick stepped up to become one of Plymouth’s biggest impact players. He finished the playoffs with 18 points: the third-highest on the Whalers, after reigning OHL Most Outstanding Player Vince Trochek and Ottawa first-rounder Stefan Noesen. Carrick had the most points of any defenseman in the playoffs, even edging out blueliners from Barrie and London who played up to six more games than he did.
Carrick didn’t only contribute offensively, though: while he was on the ice for over half the goals the Whalers scored in the playoffs (35 of 63), he was only on for 9 of the 41 goals the team allowed, and only 3 of the 22 in their semi-final series against the eventual OHL champion London Knights.
But it’s not just the numbers that make Carrick a good prospect to have. He’s also a smart guy—and I’m just not talking about how he’s studious to the point of getting teased by his teammates about it. (Although, in all fairness, studiousness to any point is probably enough to get you teased in junior hockey. Tackling a freshman year at U of M while playing full-time OHL hockey for the first time deserves tremendous respect, though, and Carrick was an exemplary student even through his high school years at the NTDP.)
Being an offensive defenseman always comes with the risk of neglecting one’s defensive responsibilities to to take offensive chances, but Carrick is a player with good instincts for joining the rush; a player who makes good decisions and who knows how to use his tools to get himself out of trouble. He is developing a skill for differentiating between worthwhile risks and bad ones, making him an effective two-way player, and he finds his place on the Whalers power play as their quarterback—not taking shots, but using his vision to set up opportunities.
Another testament to Carrick’s smarts on the ice: his 79 penalty minutes last season. The majority of these were accrued through roughing and fighting penalties, and some might call that hot-headedness, but Carrick is a small defenseman who gets routinely roughed up by his opponents. He makes up for his lack of size with his strength, excellent balance, and somewhat surprising (but certainly entertaining) mouthiness. His willingness to stand up for himself and his teammates is an asset to his game, not a downfall.
Besides, the real takeaway regarding his PIM is that he only committed nine stick penalties through the entire season. That’s impressive discipline for a player who is clearly not shy about playing physical. Most often, the penalties Carrick takes are the penalties that make a guy tough to play against, and that is a smart way to play hockey.
Underscoring all of Carrick’s skill and hockey sense is what is possibly his most important asset: his character. Carrick sets high standards for himself and uses them for motivation in his own development and also as a tool to lead by example. This is reflected in how he was awarded an assistant captain’s ‘A’ in Plymouth before playing a single game for the club.
Carrick said of the letter, “Numerous other guys could have been named a captain, but this is a responsibility I wanted,” going on to express a desire to earn his teammates’ respect through hard work and leading by example. He has spoken highly of the level of leadership amongst his Plymouth teammates several times, giving both them and Whalers Coach Mike Vellucci a lot of the credit for his smooth transition to the OHL. It’s obvious, though, that Carrick’s success is largely due to his own dedication to training and determination to improve, which he carries from the rink to all other aspects of his life: off-ice athletic training, diet, and even mental strength.
After the Whalers’ playoff run ended last season, Carrick and Wilson made the trip to Hershey together—Wilson to suit up for the Bears, Carrick to meet the team and staff and to become acquainted with the facilities before he returned home for the start of his summer classes. Although he did not do more than skate with the Bears in practice, he did sign his ATO, and the visit suggests that the Capitals organization is already seeing the upside of their fifth-rounder and looking forward to his future with them.
And they’re not the only ones: Carrick has been invited to USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp for a shot to make the roster for this year’s World Junior Championship. He got the invite last year and just missed the cut, but the outstanding year of experience he’s put under his belt since then bodes well for him this time around.
Overall, Carrick’s development this year has seen him become an exciting prospect for a Capitals organization that has struggled to put together three consistent, solid defensive pairings in recent years. Carrick is a defenseman who is good at moving the puck up the ice and excellent at keeping it in at the blue line; he is an opportunistic offensive defenseman but he shows a great commitment to defense in his own end as well. If he continues to improve at the rate he has over the past season, it is not a stretch to think he could take the same path all of the Capitals’ best d-men have in the past decade, finishing up his juniors career to take a short stint in Hershey before gracing the Verizon Center with his presence.
All it really takes is hard work, and we know Connor Carrick isn’t opposed to that.