Things couldn’t have worked out any better for the Bruins to this point in the season when it comes to 19-year-old rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo.
While most of the other fellow rookies that debuted with Carlo a few weeks ago have been relegated to healthy scratch status or sent down to the AHL, the big, right shot defenseman continues to survive, and sometimes thrive, in a featured shutdown, top pair role with B’s captain Zdeno Chara.
Carlo’s ability to play both ends of the ice with strength, poise and intelligence for 21:59 of ice time per game is exactly what the Bruins needed headed into this season, and exactly what they didn’t get last season whether it was Kevan Miller, Colin Miller, Adam McQuaid or somebody else attempting to shut down top lines with Chara. The Bruins knew they had the need for a defenseman like Carlo, but really had no idea where that player was going to come from if they didn’t have a young player “pop” in training camp like Carlo did.
The teenaged D-man has clearly had a few rookie moments here or there through five games, so it hasn’t been 100 percent perfect by any means. But the 6-foot-5, 203-pound Carlo leads all rookies with a plus-7 rating in his five games while ranking top-10 in the NHL in the plus/minus category, he’s got a goal and two points in five games for perfectly acceptable production from a non-power play guy and he’s teamed with Chara to give the Bruins a D-men pairing they can rely on in all situations.
Those players are worth their weight in Black and Gold, and the rookie Carlo has been just that through the season’s first two weeks.
“He’s a good man, and obviously is making a lot of good impressions,” said Chara. “My job is to do whatever I’m used to doing, and to make sure I can help him as much as I can. [The goal] is for us to compensate for each other and to work well together.”
Mission accomplished after five games with both Carlo and Chara among the most effective players on the Bruins roster thus far. With fewer than 20 games of pro hockey experience under his belt between last season and this year, Carlo has already earned the trust from Claude Julien to be on the ice protecting one goal leads in the final minute of regulation.
“He’s given me no reason to not want to put him out there. He’s got a great stick, great composure and he blocks shots. He does the right things. To me right now he’s not playing like a first year player, he’s playing like a player that’s been in the league for quite a while,” said Julien. “He’s very comfortable and confident, and he makes the plays out there that he needs to make.
“Like I said, he’s impressed the heck out of us with the way he’s so calm. A young player like that you would expect to be more nervous, but he’s shown us he’s the total opposite.”
That’s a rarity for any rookie player with the Bruins, and almost unheard of for a player as young and inexperienced as Carlo. But it’s always based on merit with Julien and his B’s coaching staff, and Carlo has earned all the trust and responsibility in the early going by rarely making a negative play on the ice that ends up hurting the team.
The win over the New Jersey Devils is a great example of Carlo’s resilience and confidence. He was on the ice for a goal against earlier in the game when a Kyle Palmieri point blast got through him, bounced off his skate and beat Tuukka Rask on a deflected puck that initially looked like it was going wide of the net. In the final minutes of the game with the Bruins guarding a slim one-goal lead, Carlo was on the ice protecting that slim lead with the Devils making a push. It was the same exact play facing Carlo, and this time he found a way to block Palmieri’s point blast and make certain the Bruins banked the two points with a regulation win.
Carlo certainly appreciated the second chance to make the good shutdown defensive play, and strives to show consistency as a rookie where peaks and valleys to his play will be expected.
“I feel like I kind of revived myself there with that big block,” said Carlo, who got immediate attaboys from Tuukka Rask one the puck was frozen after making the play. “It felt really good to contribute in that way at the end of the game. I feel like me being out there has a lot to do with being Zdeno’s partner and the coaching staff wanting him out there, but I love the adrenaline rush and the competition with the game on the line. It’s a great feeling.”
Quite simply the Bruins really can’t afford those peaks and valleys, fair or unfair, and the 19-year-old former second round pick seems to understand that. Instead they need Carlo to perfectly compliment 39-year-old Zdeno Chara as he’s done through five games and vice-versa with the B’s captain off to his best start in the last few years while not having to worry so much about what’s happening on his right side.
“I think I can definitely stand up and hold my own out there, but I’ve also got Zee [Chara] standing next to me and that makes me feel very protected,” said Carlo. “It’s been fantastic. Each game I think we build a little more chemistry and move the puck better, and we talk every single shift and on the ice so much.
“We’re getting really comfortable with each other’s playing styles, and I think we’re getting really comfortable out there. I’ve enjoyed the experience, and learning a great deal from his experience as well. I’m just starting to figure out that I can do this well, and now I’m just trying to stay consistent playing the way that I have been. Part of being a pro is being able to do it night in and night out. Going through the WHL I feel like I have a bit of a hand up on that because we played a 72-game schedule, so I’m used to playing three times a week. It’s a nice thing to have under my belt, but it’s just about trying to stay consistent here. I’m just going to work my hardest every night, and I’ve got plenty of time each day to get my body prepared to play.”
Carlo makes the second, game-securing play because there’s a mental and physical toughness to his game, and there is a very high learning curve for the youngster after tossed into a difficult position as a shutdown NHL D-man out of necessity. The Bruins probably should have been in big, big trouble along their back end again this season after failing to close a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk over the summer, and going into this season without upgrading whether it’s Jacob Trouba, Cam Fowler or some other young, puck-moving top-4 defenseman-type potentially available on the market.
They probably still need one of those established veteran players to truly upgrade their blue line into an area of strength rather than an area of question, but Carlo has minimized some of that dire need with his impressive first couple of weeks. The Bruins hope Carlo continues to become their version of similarly-sized St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, a third round pick that rapidly emerged on the Blues scene a couple of years ago with an impressive rookie season at 22 years old.
Carlo is three years younger than Parayko, so a virtuoso rookie season from the Bruins D-man would perhaps be even more impressive if he can maintain his current level of play all season.
The only way Carlo can do that is by going out and continuing to perform with his simple, strong and effective defenseman play as the opponents get better, and more offensively dangerous. The challenges will be steeper for Carlo as the Bruins step into a more challenging portion of the schedule. The B’s clearly believe Carlo is up to the task given his early play, and Boston’s potential to be an improved hockey club this season may ride heavily on whether the 19-year-old can keep it going.