Photo: Bob DeChiara
When we last caught up with Connor Carrick, the diminutive first-year pro was oozing confidence after a successful 2012-13 campaign with the Plymouth Whalers. Carrick, an intelligent and motivated student of the game, continued to play out of his mind during Caps’ training camp in the fall and unexpectedly made the team as a 19-year-old.
Since then, Carrick, who scored his first NHL goal on a breakaway in his second NHL game (and also got pied), has been challenged in every way. Three games into his NHL career, Carrick dealt with the disappointment of being sent down to the American Hockey League. A few months later, he left the Bears and flew to Sweden to be a leader on Team USA’s World Junior Championship team. That’s three different coaches in three months for a teenage defenseman.
Once he returned to the states, Carrick was recalled to Washington to play 27 games for the Capitals through March. During that time, Carrick was paired with veteran John Erskine (who has been injured much of the year) on the third pairing. They struggled together and at times, Carrick looked overmatched. Though his footwork, fundamentals, and decision-making improved during that time, Carrick has felt the pressure of not succeeding and producing immediately.
On Saturday, after Caps practice ended, I caught up with Carrick in the locker room and asked him about his season so far. He seemed to have a lot of things on his mind, knowing he was not playing his game but remaining optimistic and realistic for the future.
“The biggest thing in success is not just being in the lineup,” a determined Carrick said to me. “Making the team is one thing, making the team better is another, and that’s kind of that next step. I’m hoping to take it as soon as possible.”
Here is the full transcript of our chat.
[Chris begins taping interview and says to Carrick: “He’s just making me record because he doesn’t want to use his iPad.” This is true.]
How would you sum up your year so far?
Connor Carrick: It’s been tough. The best way to say it is, it’s been challenging, with a good connotation. You make the team out of camp, there’s a lot of expectations, there’s a lot of hype around the team. You want to get off to a good start. To get sent down pretty quickly after that, went down to Hershey, played pretty well, then that team was struggling. I was struggling too. Then you get injured, I was out for a couple weeks. And then go to Europe, we don’t get the result we wanted there. I don’t think I started playing well until the first or second game after the tournament.
I remember getting back, and [Hershey Bears] Coach Haviland mentioned before I left, saying “go there, whole-hearted, your only focus, win gold, make us proud, and when you come back, we’ll rest you and make sure you’re healthy again, and then you can start helping us out.” I landed, and you remember the flight saga, and what was weird was that there was a big pressure to start playing. They wanted me to play right away. I had a couple voicemails. “Connor, let us know when you land, we want you to play. We want you to warm up Saturday night, skate Sunday morning, and play Sunday.” Or, they wanted me to skate Saturday morning and play Saturday night. That couldn’t happen, because my flight just got cancelled. Then they wanted me to warm up Saturday, play Sunday. And then on Sunday, they were hoping my gear would come in the morning of the game, and I would just go fresh into the game after jet lag and now I hadn’t skated in now three and a half, four days.
What I was worried about was what’s the deadline to send me back to Plymouth. Cause I didn’t know how that works, and I hadn’t played a North American game in six weeks. You don’t get any feedback while you’re over there (in Sweden), so I didn’t know what anyone thought, but I knew something was up. When you get called up right away, you have that weird game in Tampa, you’re changing every ten minutes. Fast forward a couple of games and you’re in a playoff run.
So, it’s been challenging. It’s very difficult with all the different styles of hockey, all the different things coaches want. Every coach has got their hockey pillars: “work hard,” “be good one-on-one,” “make good first pass.” And there’s a couple things that they really focus on, so it’s been difficult picking those things up. It’s been fun, overall.
How did Team USA’s style of play differ from the Caps?
CC: On USA we kind of broke out like Pittsburgh. We kind of did like that second quick almost which what we did in Hershey. Up here, we do a different breakout. Those things aren’t difficult, they’re just different. And what makes it more difficult to pick up new things at this level is that guys are so good. If I want to pick up a new thing in juniors, say a guy got a half step on me, I was quicker than 90% of the guys. And maybe at this level I’m quicker than 60% of the guys. So there’s different things you’ve got to use, and it’s harder to pick new things up, but you really try to. Calle, we were just talking out there, and he’s like, “you’ve only laced them up 30 times. That is so few overall.” The problem is that no matter what, because the expectations were so low, this year will automatically be ruled a success (for me) by most people. But that’s kinda where I try to not get stuck. I want to be successful in the game. Not just playing in the game means I’m successful. There’s a huge difference.
It seems like your positioning has really improved over the last month or two.
CC: There’s certain areas… I mentioned the hockey pillars, the things that just have to happen. As a defenseman, you just have to be good in front of your own net. If you’re not, you’re a liability. There’s other things. I broke one of them last game. First shift, get a shot blocked. Unacceptable. You can’t do it. You have to get pucks, either to the net or to below the goal line. Sometimes you get caught trying to do too little, where you’re too passive or you give a guy too much respect. Examples: he’s got his back turned to you and you don’t go after him. He’s coming up with speed, and your gap’s bad and you don’t want to get beat wide. Those are like cop outs. And then there’s times when you’re overly aggressive and you’re trying to do too much. I was convinced last night on that play, I could toe drag and shoot through his legs. He opened up, I was convinced I could get it through. There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be a good play, and it wasn’t.
But it’s been a good learning experience, right?
CC: I try to [improve], I know there’s people who don’t think so. Those are the things that you kind of have to deal with. As a young guy, with all the pressure in this organization, I get it. It’s still bothersome, but I get it. There’s nothing I can do about it other than try to play through it. I try and watch most of our clips, most of our video and stuff. I usually know what’s going on, where I messed up, where I had a good play, where I could have had a better play. It’s just hard in that split-second.
It seems like you and Orlov have played well together.
CC: He’s really good with the puck. He does a good job handling it, he can make a good play. The thing he’s gotten better at is talking. English is not his first language, but he does a pretty good job and it’s kind of funny. It’ll kind of stick out in your mind, you’ll be in the D-zone and all you’ll hear is “I go, I go!” He is doing a good job, and there’s certain things that I think I do well that help him out. I think I do a good job along the blue line of going D-to-D. I don’t try to force too many shots. We talk about it in the room – being able to spread the ice. I think it’s a strength of mine, and [Orlov] shoots the puck really well. I can think of a couple opportunities just last game where I made those plays. And there’s a lot of plays he makes that really help me out, too. I like playing with him. I like playing with everybody. There’s different strengths and weaknesses to every guy, different communication levels, but you try and stay focused and have fun with it.
Defense has been a weakness for the team this year. What do you think is the problem in general with the team? Is it coverage? Is it bad gaps? Is it turnovers?
CC: I can’t speak for the team, because I’ve only played X amount of games, and one, who am I to judge anybody? Where I know I get in trouble is there’s always in hockey — anytime it’s a one-on-one situation — there’s a player who’s defending and attacking, and that’s regardless of the puck. Say it goes D-to-D and a guy’s really got a good angle at me. I’ve got no speed, I have the puck, but I’m on defense. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thinking, “Just don’t mess this up.” Whereas there’s times where you’ve got to put other guys on defense. I feel like, when I get in trouble is when I’m not an attacker. Anytime I’m attacking, I’m really coming up on a guy, I worked really hard to get my five feet, and stay over the top of him in the neutral zone and keep my gap – that’s when I’m successful. When I really pick up a puck off the wall with the intention of shooting and scoring, that’s when I do well. When a puck’s on the wall and it gives you that second ounce of doubt, and all of a sudden I have the puck but I’m really defending, that’s when you get in trouble.
As far as the team goes, we have breakdowns just like anybody does. One of the things we talked about was turnovers. It kind of bit us in one of the Pittsburgh games and last night [against the Canucks]. Maybe that’s the big thing. But I think anytime you’re able to attack all 200 feet, that’s when you’re going to be successful.
Do you think it’s limiting shots on net, too? It seems like there’s been too many right in front of the goal.
CC: Yeah… Yeah. It’s hard. I haven’t been around enough systems to differentiate what a successful NHL team does on defense versus what our team does. It’s something we talk about. It’s something we work on. At this level, it’s about execution. The thought process is almost always right, it’s just – did that puck bounce, or were you expecting forehand and it came on your backhand, was there a rivet in the ice where you [got scored on] – and how many times can you prevent those from happening? It’s kind of what’s so important.
I’ve written a lot about how I’m excited for the young defense on the team: you, Orlov, a lot of guys (Schmidt, Wey) that can grow with Alzner and Carlson. Are you excited to be a part of that?
CC: It’s cool to be a part of. I get it – [Ian interrupts: you were one of the leaders of that,too]. I’ve seen young teams have to try and deal with the pressure. I was in Chicago when they were really young – Toews and Kane. [I was] in Chicago at that time, playing, and I saw them getting beat handily every year by the Red Wings. Everyone would talk about it like it was Big Brother. Look at the success they’ve had now. So hopefully something like that can come up. We’ve got some good young guys – Orly’s real good; I try to contribute; Willy’s good; Kuznetsov has had a good impact; Schmitty’s had a good couple games. Wey’s just Steady Eddie. He’s almost like a right-handed Alzner in a lot of ways. I don’t want to miss anybody, but I’m not going to keep rattling off names. [laughs]
It is cool to be a part of. There’s a pressure that comes with it. You try and handle it, and you try and just be successful. The biggest thing is success is not just being in the lineup. Making the team is one thing, making the team better is another, and that’s kind of that next step. So I’m hoping to take it as soon as possible. I’m ready. I’m trying as best as I can. I’m a firm believer in the process. The jump to the OHL was a process, and I was better than half the guys in almost any aspect.
Finally, I tweeted to you a few months ago about Qdoba’s versus Chipotle. Where do you fall?
CC: Chipotle. There’s no question. I’m a regular.
Chris Gordon: Ian doesn’t realize they don’t even have Qdoba’s here in Arlington.
CC: We don’t? See, I haven’t even noticed. That’s how much I’m a Chipotle guy. Qboda’s got their queso going, but that’s about as strong as they get. Chipotle wins.
If u are a hockey player, then u eat Chipotle. However, if u eat Chipotle, that does not guarantee u are a hockey player. #NowYouKnow
— Connor Carrick (@connorcarrick) November 30, 2013
— Connor Carrick (@connorcarrick) December 5, 2013
On Tuesday, Carrick was a healthy scratch against the Anaheim Ducks and Patrick Wey was called-up from Hershey and inserted into the line-up. Oates talked about the decision to The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera.
“I think there always is [a ceiling for young players], I’m not sure he’s reached it. I just talked to him out there and I said don’t read into [being scratched] too much. [He’s] played good hockey but he’s had a tremendous amount of hockey this year. Sometimes it’s good to sit upstairs for a game or two to just get a different perspective. He’s going to be fine, just a little break.”
While Carrick has struggled at the NHL level this year, he is a integral part of a young defense that has a bright future ahead. He is a smart kid, he is motivated, and he is going to succeed. I would not bet against him.
Thanks to Katie Brown (@katie_brown47) for transcribing the interview.