By Chris Gordon
Carrick peeks out from behind Wilson at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in July. (Photo credit: Chris Gordon)
Two thousand twelve first-round draft pick Tom Wilson is fawned over, with good reason. At 6′ 4″, he’s a mammoth dude who scores goals, hits hard, and unleashes a myriad of expletives — the personification of a hockey player. When Caps fans think of the Plymouth Whalers, Wilson is usually the only one who comes to mind. There is, however, another Washington prospect playing in eastern Michigan: fifth-round pick Connor Carrick.
It’s July at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and there are about 40 guys packed into a space no bigger than my living room. Few will ever amount to anything in the National Hockey League. Last year Carrick looked like he might be among the majority. This year, however, Carrick was not an anonymous late-round pick. In one season with the Plymouth Whalers, Carrick’s stock has risen dramatically.
“I understand the power of going day-by-day, because otherwise it’s too hard,” Carrick said in an interview over the summer. “Everyone I’ve ever talked to has reiterated the importance of keeping your head where your feet are. You can’t be in Juniors already thinking about Hershey and you can’t be in Hershey already thinking about Washington. It’s a natural thing to do but it’s something you gotta fight. What’s my timetable for Washington? I don’t know.”
“I’m going to give them every reason to say yes — that’s my goal,” he added. “I’m gonna force the issue.”
Of course, when speaking of trite things like “stock,” it can be tough to discern the difference behind a blip or real trend. Nevertheless, Adam Oates singled him out back in July as a reason he bothers watching Development Camp, which was mostly populated with forgettable filler.
“I thought he’s really upgraded from last year,” Oates told reporters. “He looks stronger and a lot more poised in all aspects.”
Calle Johansson, the man who handles Washington’s defense corps, was even more effusive.
“I really like what I see,” said Johansson. “He plays like a man, not a kid. Obviously he’s a young guy so he needs a little bit of teaching, but you can tell he’s got it all. He has what it takes to be a player. I’m impressed. I can’t tell you where he’s going, but if he gets the right teaching, he’ll be a top-four defenseman in this league.”
Carrick is an offensive defenseman, though he hates being called one, saying “one of the things that really drives me nuts is people discredit how much defense you play because you’re good offensively.” He models himself as a puck mover, a guy constantly pushing the pace while being solid defensively, and counts Mike Green, Ron Hainsey, and Kris Letang as his favorite players. Carrick says his goal on the ice is to “put the puck on really good players’ sticks.”
Carrick’s game really took off towards the latter part of last season, his first in Major Junior hockey. Carrick is an American, so he didn’t jump to the OHL early. Instead, he played for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, planning to stay in the city to get his degree while playing for the University of Michigan. Once he started to realize his ability, Carrick opted instead for the rigors of Juniors. Carrick’s a smart dude, so he’s still taking classes at Michigan, located just 20 miles from Plymouth.
Once he grew acclimated to the OHL, Carrick, who stands at 5′ 11″, rebounded from his slow start. He registered just 16 points in the first half of the season, but tallied 28 in the second. He was second on his team (for defensemen) in points and consistently created chances for his forwards with timely rushes and sharp passing. He credits his coach, Mike Vellucci, for spurring his success.
“He trusted me with a lot of minutes, a lot of very important minutes,” Carrick said of Velucci. “I was able to pick up points in the process, but I was much more happy with the way I was playing for myself. Offensively I was a threat and defensively I was strong. I wasn’t thinking, I was just playing — really getting into that mode on the ice because every decision you make is the right one — that’s how I felt on the ice.”
In the end, Carrick led his team’s defenseman in goals (12), while registering 44 points in the regular season. He went on to lead all OHL d-men in playoff points, despite getting eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite his success, Carrick was largely ignored two months ago at Development Camp — at least by people who didn’t play on the Capitals teams of the mid-90s (Oates and Johansson). As usual, he wasn’t the best player on the ice. That was Tom Wilson, picked in the first round by the Capitals last year. There was also André Burakovsky, the Caps’ first round pick this year, along with other Players Possibly More Worth Your Time Than Connor Carrick. Fast forward to this month’s Rookie Camp and it’s the same story.
Carrick is used to his role; the Whalers have a lot of very good players. The big one, at least for Caps fans: Wilson, the hockey player-cum-verbal abuser. Carrick is in his shadow. Wilson is a big goal-scorer, a bigger star, and a 16th overall pick. Coming from the same team, Carrick can seem like an afterthought, even in Plymouth.
“Does the shadow bother me at all? No. Is there one? Yeah,” Carrick said when asked if he ever feels inferior.
“My goal is never to outshine Tom Wilson; my goal is to play in the NHL for the Washington Capitals,” he added. “I know he was a first-round pick. That doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t set up any competition. I’m fine with where he’s at, and part of the reason for that is I know I’m getting better. I know it because I can feel it, I know it because I’ve been told it.”
One of guys who’s told him that? Tom Wilson, who remarked to us that “Caps fans should be pretty excited in about what they see in him. He’s getting better and better.”
Carrick is still not a huge star. Nevertheless, he will likely be the captain of his team this year. When he speaks, you can see why. He’s confident, but not pretentious. He doesn’t succumb to hockey newspeak. In other words, he’s a good example for a bunch of 16- to 20-year-old bros with questionable fashion sense.
“I recognize the importance of it,” Carrick said of his leadership role. “I try to bring it everyday: push the pace at practice, try to set the tone for games. I think I can get better.”
As a leader on the Whalers, Carrick has to talk. When somebody’s not doing the right thing, it’s part his job to kept them in line. He’s always speaking up, whether to his teammates or the opposition. While not a reservoir of colorful epithets like Wilson, Carrick yaps when he’s on the ice.
“There’s something about being in a hockey game and seeing the other guy get mad at something you’re doing,” Carrick said of trash talking. “Getting under his skin — there’s something enjoyable about it, there just is. They’re thinking about something other than scoring goals at that moment.”
“I know the line. I am not an idiot about it,” he went on. “If a guy’s got something to say to me, I’ve got something to say back.”
On-ice arguments are just part of Carrick’s style. He loves to be a pain in the ass, though unlike many pests he’s actually pretty good at the “hockey” part of the game. It’s something he knows he has to keep up to make it to the NHL.
“When we talk with the staff of the Capitals that’s something they embrace in my game. I try to bring a physical presence,” said Carrick. “I try to be a competitor. Every time the Caps see it they love it and every time they don’t they’re cynical. I try to be offensive but there’s no doubt in my mind that if I’m gonna be successful as I can be at this level and at the next level, that’s something that I’m going to need more of — maybe not so much the fighting, but being hard to play against, annoying guys, guys shaking their head when they are sitting back on the bench.”
Carrick’s success from last season is already beginning to carry over to this year. Carrick was one of the most notable players on the ice for Team USA at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, and Oates once again singled him out at this week’s Rookie Camp. He is also a lock to play on this year’s World Junior Championship team and is slated to be on Plymouth’s first pairing on defense.
Carrick’s dreams, nursed as a kid at rink two minutes from his home in Chicago, are finally starting to become a reality — possibly. When you ask him about those goals, you find out why so it’s easy to root for him.
“I love hockey,” Carrick said. “I love the game. I love everything about it.”
“I really enjoy playing,” he continued. “I really enjoy being on the ice. It’s a lot of fun, it really is. I’ve always been a kid who really appreciates what this game has to offer. I know how good I am and I know how good I’m not. I understand how far I’ve come, I understand how far I have to go.”
“If I don’t make it, I’ll know I’ve played my part,” Carrick concluded.
Interviews and additional reporting by Ian Oland. Research by Fedor Fedin.
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