Considering the fact he made his NHL debut with the Capitals at the age of 19 nearly two years ago, it seems unfair to suggest that at 21, Connor Carrick is farther away from the NHL than he was at 19.
Yet with last summer’s acquisitions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, along with the speedy development of defensive prospect Madison Bowey, Carrick enters his third season as a pro somewhere around eighth or ninth on the Caps’ defensive depth chart, behind Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney and, perhaps, Bowey.
Carrick, however, refuses to get caught up in the numbers game, saying his goal heading into this season is to simply be better than he was last season, when he established himself as a solid AHL blue liner with the Hershey Bears.
“The way I look at it is no matter what, it’s got to be a good year,” Carrick said after a recent workout at Kettler. “A lights-out year would be playing all 82 games, a plus-30 or 40, and I’m awesome.
“But at a bare minimum I’ve got to be a really good player for whatever team I’m on the ice for that day. My goal is to make the Washington Capitals and anybody who tells you different shouldn’t be here. You play the game to play in the NHL.
“However, if I end up in the American League I want to push the envelope in terms of really being a positive factor for my team. Maybe start to lead a little bit. Not mouthy or anything, but it will be my third year pro and there are some young D coming in.”
In his first full season with the Bears, Carrick saw time on the power play and recorded eight goals and 34 assists in 73 games. He also racked up 132 minutes in penalties, including a career-high six fighting majors. That’s excessive for a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder known more for his wrists than his fists.
“It was a good year for me personally,” Carrick said. “The coaching staff echoes a lot of the stuff the Capitals talk about. For the good majority of the year they put me in a good situation to grow my game at the pro level. I was able to take some strides and hopefully I’m another step toward being a factor in the NHL.”
Following the season, which ended with a second-round playoff loss to Hartford, Carrick met with the Bears coaching staff and was told to spend his summer working on his greatest asset -- his skating.
“They were positive, but they definitely set the bar high for this season and where they want to see my game go,” he said. “I feel I’ve taken strides toward that and now it’s all about execution.
“Everybody’s pretty good in September, but it’s important to be good in June. You work all summer to be good then.”
After the 2014-15 season Carrick returned to his home in Orland Park, Ill., where he was able to see his two younger brothers in a few hockey games. Blake Carrick, 19, is a forward for the Wilkes-Barre Knights of the North American Hockey League, and Hunter Carrick, 15, is a defenseman for the Oakland Junior Grizzlies in Michigan.
Carrick said Blake is slightly smaller than himself but is devoted enough to play at the college level.
“He’s an absolute freak physically,” Carrick said. “Just an animal. Like Navy seal-type stuff. He’ll do a hundred pushups in a row, run a mile and ask you what’s next.”
At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Hunter is taller than both of his older brothers and still growing. Carrick said last winter he bought Hunter a pair of size-10 shoes and two months later received them back because Hunter had grown into a size 12.
Carrick said treating his brothers to new shoes was the least he could do for his parents, who carted their three sons all over Illinois to see them play hockey in the winters and baseball in the summers.
“At one point we were all playing 60 to 80 games of hockey and 90 to 100 games of travel baseball,” Carrick said. “We played more games than there were days in the year.”
Now that he’s reached the pros Carrick said his next step is make himself a viable and trusted option as an NHL player while also mentoring first-time pros Bowey, 20, Tyler Lewington, 20 and Christian Djoos, 21, on the Bears blue line.
“It all comes back to skating,” he said. “Every system now demands so much of your defensemen, especially here. They need you to be involved. The Caps are always preaching that you’ve got to be controlling momentum as a D-man by trying to make stops at the blue line and making plays going up the ice.
“I’m trying to be more dynamic with the puck. That’s something I’m going to have to be able to do at the next level if I’m going to make it. Guys my size tend to be pretty good offensively. They can see the ice well, the can shoot well and they can finish. That’s where my focus is.”
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