When Connor Carrick
learned he’d become a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the evening of Feb. 28, he was in a car in Hershey, Pa., heading to meet some teammates in the wake of his American League team’s 5-1 win over Utica. It was the first trade of the 21-year-old defenceman’s professional hockey career, and like most young men in that situation, he needed a moment to collect himself. So the car quickly pulled to the side of the road, he jumped out and took a few minutes to breathe, then received calls from the Washington Capitals team (that selected him 137th overall in the 2012 NHL draft) and his new employer.
“Definitely an intense couple minutes,” Carrick said Friday, after finishing practice at the Leafs’ west-Toronto workout facility.
But the intensity for the Orland Park, Ill., native only picked up from there. Less than 24 hours after taking that call, Carrick was at Air Canada Centre, playing nearly 20 minutes for the Leafs – and engaging in his first fight as a member of the Blue & White – in Toronto’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since then, he’s played five more games for the Buds, picking up a pair of assists and logging 21:36 Wednesday against the New York Islanders – a career-best at the NHL level for him.
In that short period of time, Carrick has shown why Leafs director of player personnel Mark Hunter and others in the organization wanted him included in the trade that sent veteran winger Daniel Winnik and a draft pick to the Caps, and that brought veteran forward Brooks Laich and a pick to Toronto. He’s got speed, smarts, terrific instincts on offence and doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game. And although he didn’t have a place on a Washington team aiming to win a Stanley Cup this year, he recognizes the tremendous opportunity the Leafs are giving him – the chance to establish himself as an NHL player.
“It certainly wasn’t growing stale or anything like that in Washington, but it was starting to feel like there might be a little bit of a ceiling in terms of what I would’ve been able to achieve within the organization’s plans,” Carrick said. “Anytime you get a new look and you’re in front of new eyes for your game, you want to impress, and that’s what it’s been about so far.”
Carrick, who spent his formative years with the U.S. National Development Team before playing one season of major junior hockey with the Ontario League’s Plymouth Whalers, has always gravitated to producing offence. He amassed 34 assists and 42 points in 73 games for Hershey last season, and had posted 10 goals and 26 points with the team this year prior to the trade to Toronto. But Laich – who saw Carrick up-close in the 2013-14 campaign, when he played 34 games for the Caps, scoring a goal and six points in that span – has noticed growth in another part of Carrick’s game now that both are with the Leafs.
“I remember watching him play in Washington, and he came up wanting to be an offensive D-man, and he has great offensive instincts,” Laich said Friday. “What I’ve seen from him here is tremendous growth on the other side of the puck, on the defensive side of the puck: his one-on-one battles, his breakouts, how he’s executing all the little things in the game that add up to be the big things. Lifting sticks, getting body position, making a breakout pass the first time, not the second or third. Looking to pound the puck instead of just getting a wrister in that might get blocked. A lot of little things that are going to add up to making his game complete and make him an NHL player.”
Because Hershey didn’t often play Toronto’s AHL affiliate squad, Carrick was fairly unfamiliar with the players on the Leafs roster. So he leaned on Laich a little bit at first after the trade, but got some great advice from the veteran on ingratiating himself to his new teammates.
“I know Connor, certainly as a young guy coming in, you’re a little bit shy, and coming into a new organization, maybe a little bit more so,” Laich said. “I’ve told him that it’s a great opportunity for him, first and foremost – he’ll never be in a better position to make the NHL as a full-time player than he is here. So for him, assimilate himself with the young guys, talk to guys. He has to go out of his way to be friendly or to be vocal or to reach out to guys, because the guys here are young guys as well, and Connor actually has more experience than most of them. (It’s a) great opportunity for him to be one of the guys and let your personality come out, and he’s been playing very well for us.”
The Leafs have 16 regular-season games remaining this year, and Carrick – who’ll be a restricted free agent this summer – can boost his stock within the organization by continuing his solid play. On this young Toronto squad, that puts him in similar company with many of his teammates, head coach Mike Babcock said.
“He’s trying to secure himself a spot to be a regular NHL player is what he’s trying to do,” Babcock said. “No different than (Leafs blueliner Frankie) Corrado or anybody else in that boat. I think he’s been competitive and he’s played a simple game, and he’s not been in very many of the scoring chances-against, so that’s positive for a young ‘D’.”
Carrick hasn’t just had to adapt to the NHL level in these first couple weeks in Toronto – he’s also had to familiarize himself with Babcock’s system. That task has made practices a little more tense than games, he said with a smile.
“It’s quick – a lot of movement, it’s not stagnant at all, which as a player you appreciate,” Carrick said of Babcock’s practices. “You want to be moving and work hard, and that’s what he gives you the opportunity to do.
“It’s definitely a different style than I’ve been used to, and I was joking with my dad, (saying) you get more nervous for practice than you do a game. A game, it’s pretty natural, but practice, every coach has what they’re particular on. So you just try and learn everything as quickly as possible and be ready to go.”