Matt Carle did not exactly arrive in San Jose as a routine rookie. The Hobey Baker Award winner as the college player of the year jumped straight from college to the NHL and with only 12 games, jumped into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a 12-game “veteran”, there were nights Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson called Carle the best defenseman on the ice.
Just six games into his second campaign, Carle is showing that he is now flash in the pan. He’s registered six points in the early going on two goals and four assists, ranking second among NHL blueliners in points. His +5 plus/minus rating is also second among all NHL rearguards. The only person above Carle in both categories is Detroit’s all-everything Niklas Lidstrom.
While early, it is clear that Carle is moving to the front of the line for Calder Trophy consideration as the NHL’s rookie of the year. To be deemed eligible for the award, a player must have played in 26 or less NHL games the previous season.
Vesa Toskala, along with Evgeni Nabokov, has benefited from the offensive defenseman. Many times the offensive blueliners can create more trouble for a netminder, but Toskala feels Carle is aware of both ends of the ice.
“He has good hockey sense,” said Toskala. “He is so smart in how he reads the game and that gives him more time (with the puck). He plays both ends of the ice pretty well.”
One of the most underestimated roles of a defenseman is making the initial pass out of the zone. If the play doesn’t happen, it either creates a turnover or stifles the offensive rush.
“It doesn’t look exciting, but the 10-foot pass can be the best play,” said Toskala. “He makes it easy with the first pass. He’s not always trying to make the difficult play.”
What San Jose knows is that Carle is one poised player.
“If you are too stressed on the ice, it doesn’t matter if it’s the playoffs or the regular season,” said Toskala. “He seems to handle the pressure pretty well.”
On the ice last year, Carle was dealt with no differently than any other player. Off the ice, the Sharks paid extra attention to their fresh-faced college student.
“(Sharks Assistant Coach) Rob Zettler sat down with me before each game and gave me things to look for,” recalls Carle.
The talks were not to infiltrate Carle’s mind with a plethora of new information, but more to keep him at ease with very little information.
“I just wanted to give him some confidence and let him know how we wanted him to compete,” said Zettler. “It was not to overwhelm him, but to make sure he didn’t do too much.”
Due to his college commitments, Carle could never even attend a Sharks training camp, so this year, September provided a good learning opportunity.
“After taking the summer off, it was good to get to camp and get some feedback,” said Carle. “I had a rough start to camp. I still have a learning curve.”
With just 18 games of NHL experience, Carle is not shying away from any challenges for the coming year.
“You’re expected to produce, but you want that kind of pressure,” said Carle. “It’s why you play.”
Pressure is not a concern for Carle. He has won two World Junior Championships and two NCAA college championships so he knows how to handle situations where you can be eliminated with just one loss.
Yet Carle can be at home in the simplest of situations. He’s from a background where his parents skipped attending a gold medal performance by him at the World Juniors because the two younger sons needed them home more during the Christmas holidays.
The brothers hope to follow Matt’s trail to the NHL, but Matt followed another Alaskan’s trail. The middle son is currently at Shattuck St. Mary’s, the prep school where Sidney Crosby honed his skills and like most 12-year-olds involved in hockey, the youngest brother is already plotting his NHL career.
There have been several Alaskans who have made it to the NHL, but when New Jersey’s Scott Gomez was drafted in the first round and lifted hockey’s Holy Grail in his inaugural campaign, the door opened wide for more to follow.
“Scott Gomez was huge,” said Carle. “He was the first to pave the way for a lot of us. Some guys like Scott Parker helped being first rounders, but Gomez won the Calder Trophy and the Stanley Cup. When I was a kid, I would look in the paper to see Gomez’s stats. We didn’t have the NHL package then.”
Now, when kids check the paper to see the updated stats on Alaska’s homegrown NHL talent, Carle is one of the first names they see. And he could duplicate Gomez’s mark of winning the Calder Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season.
Carle has not lived in Alaska full-time since leaving to play junior hockey in 2001 when he was just 17-years-old, but the state is still near and dear to his heart.
“It’s fun to go home and see the sport has been growing there since I was a kid,” said Carle. “I hope more and more make the NHL.”
During the long, dark winters, there is not much natural sunlight, but that is easily fixed by outdoor lighting for outdoor rinks.
“Every public school up there has a frozen rink,” said Carle.
Despite the amount of kids playing the game, it can still be hard for Alaskan’s to be noticed by NHL scouts.
“It is hard to get exposure,” said Carle. “I was fortunate to have a family that could support me playing. We would take five or six team trips a year to British Columbia, Boston or Minnesota. It let’s us be seen by college and junior scouts. Not a whole lot travel to see us up there.”
Carle defends his home city of Anchorage as not being on the frozen tundra.
“It’s not too bad in the winter because it’s on the water,” said Carle. “It is probably colder in Minnesota or Edmonton. I just had a lot of fun up there. We had a cabin and in the winter we would go on the late and clear an area to play hockey. On New Year’s we would light fireworks and try to play while there was still light from them. I’m still good friends with the group I played hockey with growing up.”
You apparently can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take the Alaska out of the boy.
STICKING WITH THE PLAN
Ron Wilson reiterated that he will stick with his current goaltending rotation and not be swayed by a shutout or especially strong performance from either goaltender.
“The thought may cross your mind, but I’ll stay true to my word,” said Ron Wilson. “The Capitals won a Jennings Trophy alternating goaltenders. Edmonton used Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr.”
The Red Wings are the next opponent and despite several premature obituaries in the hockey world, the boys from Hockeytown are still a force in the NHL.
San Jose will host Detroit at HP Pavilion Thursday night and there are limited tickets available at the HP Pavilion Box Office or at www.ticketmaster.com
. The game will be available on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and www.sjsharks.com.