In some respects, things are easier for Connor Carrick now than they were a little more than a month ago when he arrived at rookie camp as a fifth-round pick looking to give the Washington Capitals something to remember. Now the NHL regulars on the roster know his name, and he understands what the coaching staff expects from him.
But even after appearing in three regular season games and making the Capitals’ roster, he’s still a 19-year-old rookie defenseman learning how to make the transition from the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL, without any guarantee of how long he’ll be here.
“Every game I go in there’s a possibility if I don’t perform that could be the deciding factor,” Carrick said. “I think the biggest thing is staying confident, understanding the details that’s required to be successful at this level and understanding the poise that it takes. You’ve gotta get rid of the nerves. No one’s interested in your nerves; they need results.”
Carrick impressed the Capitals during training camp and five preseason games. In those contests, he played significant minutes and was given an opportunity to stand out on a roster thoroughly mixed with both NHL and American Hockey League players.
His performance, — combined with characteristics like strong puck-handling ability, strength for his age and confidence — convinced the Capitals that the Illinois native should start the year in Washington.
“He has a lot built in that you don’t have to teach a kid, and that’s why you want to keep a guy like that around,” assistant coach Calle Johansson said. “The other stuff is easier to teach.”
In the framework of the regular season, Carrick has skated on the third pairing with ice time of 10:45, 17:26, 12:41 against the Blackhawks, Flames and Stars respectively. While that’s where he fits as a right-handed defenseman on the Capitals’ depth chart, it is debatable whether the diminished role is the best way for him to develop.
“The one thing that we’re conscious of is, are we hurting his learning curve? Has he stopped learning because he’s in survival mode?” Coach Adam Oates said. “The league is very tough, no question. I don’t think three games is at all a fair example, but if a guy is not getting minutes and that affects his learning, that’s maybe not a good decision on our part.”
The results have been mixed.
Carrick’s calmness on the ice often serves him well. His ability to make quick, correct decisions has made for the smooth plays out of the zone and sprung him free on a breakaway to record his first NHL goal. But the unforgiving speed of the NHL has also made an example out of him at times.
Both Oates and Johansson say they’re happy with Carrick’s performance and understand he will need time to adapt to the speed and skill in the NHL. Carrick doesn’t have the extra second or two he was afforded in juniors to make the correct play, and the opponents here are bigger, stronger, faster and functioning at a breakneck pace.
“There are a couple plays where I can overpower a guy in junior or really outsmart a guy,” Carrick said. “And it doesn’t work at this level, but at the same time, there are things that I do in my game that are successful. You’ve got to figure out what’s what, and the three games have helped me understand what exactly those things are.”
Unlike right wing Tom Wilson, who is only eligible to play in either the NHL or juniors this year, Carrick could be sent down to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears because he was not playing in the CHL when he was drafted.
In the AHL, Carrick would have a greater opportunity for significant playing time in a professional league, but could still be recalled to Washington at any time. The Capitals could also elect to return him to the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, but that seems unlikely, given the coaching staff’s assessment of the young defenseman.
“He’s beyond juniors, absolutely. He’s proven that,” Johansson said. “You can see [the NHL is] an adjustment, and the mistakes he makes is because he sometimes thinks too much. Maybe he’s too smart for his own good sometimes, instead of just playing, but he’s way too good for juniors.”