Adam Carlson was given his first chance to walk away from hockey when he failed to make the junior varsity team as a sophomore at Edina High School in Minnesota.
Two years later, he was cut from the varsity team as a senior and watched from the stands as his hometown Hornets won a state title.
Today, Carlson, 22, gets paid to play hockey and is expected to begin next season as the starting goaltender for the Capitals’ ECHL affiliate South Carolina Stingrays.
“Never give up,” Carlson said. “Guys who come into the pros, they’re usually the best guys on their team, so when they face something like getting cut from a team it’s hard on them."
“I was lucky enough to learn that at a young age, that you’ve got to overcome and no one is going to feel sorry for you and no one really did, as they shouldn’t. I was lucky enough to learn that at a young age — that you’ve got to battle through — and hopefully, I can continue using that in these upcoming years.”
After graduating from Edina High School, which has produced three-time Stanley Cup champion Bill Nyrop, longtime NHLer Paul Ranheim and Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke, Carlson played two seasons with the Coulee Region Chill of the North American Hockey League before getting accepted into Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.
Carlson went 7-7-3 with one shutout, a 2.85 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his only season at Mercyhurst and was signed as a free agent by the Capitals in March.
Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn saw Carlson play in a game against Rochester Institute of Technology and liked Carlson’s size (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) and athleticism.
Korn recommended the Caps sign Carlson to help fill the goaltending depth that was lost when the Caps included Pheonix Copley in the Troy Brouwer deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington last summer.
“He’s a big goalie, and he’s extremely quick and athletic for a guy his size,” Korn said.
“He’s very green. One of the things we wanted to do is we wanted to find, much like we did with Pheonix Copley, a diamond in the rough. We didn’t want to go for one of the five or six high-profile free agents and get in bidding wars. We just didn’t want to go there.
“We wanted to find a guy that we thought had a lot of attributes, but was green, that was willing to start in the (ECHL) because we had the American League pretty well covered, and would be willing to work and grow and climb the ladder.
“I’m a big believer in late-bloomers. I’m a big believer in earning everything, and at the end of the day, he seemed to fit that bill.”
After agreeing to a two-year deal with the Capitals that includes signing bonuses of $92,500 in each of the next two seasons, Carlson spent time with the AHL Hershey Bears during their playoff run, learning the ins and outs of the pro game.
“It was nice to be able to do that because you don’t know what to expect going into the pro game,” Carlson said. “College, you spend a lot of time with your team and you’re kind of a big family, whereas in the pro game everyone’s got families. It was cool to be able to experience that this year and have a nice transition into next season.”
Carlson was one of three goalies at the Caps’ development camp last week, where he spent hours of on-ice training with Korn, getting his first experience with goalie screens, medicine balls and many other Kornian techniques.
“It’s an honor,” Carlson said of being tutored by Korn, who has coached Vezina Trophy winners Dominik Hasek and Braden Holtby. “He’s done a very good job with Holtby and (Philipp) Grubauer. It’s humbling to learn from the best.”
Carlson said he also considers himself a diamond in the rough and says he is willing to soak up everything Korn, former Caps goalie Olie Kolzig and Bears goalie coach Scott Murray have to offer during his development.
“They’re looking for a competitor, a guy who can be a sponge and listen to what they have to say and then go out and do it,” Carlson said. “And if I can do those things, good things are going to happen down the road.
“Sometimes I get a little bit ahead of myself and go off in the splits and being a little crazy. It looks cool, but at the end of the day it doesn’t get you anywhere. … I know I’ve got some things I’ve got to polish off and clean up a little bit, but I know I have what it takes to be able reach the next level and with the help of Mitch I think I can do it.”
With the free-agent signing of Joe Cannata, the Capitals’ goaltending depth chart now looks like this (prospect Ilya Samsonov remains unsigned):
1. Braden Holtby
2. Philipp Grubauer
3. Joe Cannata
4. Vitek Vanecek
5. Adam Carlson
The Capitals still need to sign a backup in South Carolina who can take some of the load off Carlson, who will need to adapt to the grind of the ECHL’s 72-game season.
“I’m just looking forward to playing a lot of games,” he said. “In college you only play 35 games and I was splitting time (at Mercyhurst) so even if I do split time (in South Carolina) you’re getting a lot more playing time. And if I do go to South Carolina the weather’s a lot better than in Minnesota or Erie, so I can’t complain about that.”