by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
Two years ago, while Connor Carrick was anxiously waiting to hear his name called in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, his younger brother, Hunter, was sitting beside him, listening to hundreds of names he didn’t recognize.
Joining in with the spirited crowd in Pittsburgh, Hunter began playfully booing each team that was called, eliciting a warning from his older brother that he’d better not boo when a team took him.
Five rounds later, Carrick was shaking hands with George McPhee, then the general manager of the Washington Capitals, and letting his new team in on a secret.
“I ratted my brother out,” Carrick recalled with a laugh. “I let them know, ‘Hey, this kid was booing your staff.’ He was as red as a goal light.”
Now 20 years old and one season removed from his professional debut with the Capitals, Carrick’s humor and candor still keeps him buoyant when surrounding circumstances threaten to sink him. After making Washington’s opening night roster last year, the Illinois-born defenseman skated in three games with the Capitals, notching his first NHL point — a goal — in his second game, a 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames.
A week later, he was loaned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, and played in eight games before suffering an injury that saw him sit out the end of November and halfway into December. The annual IIHF World Junior Championships, held in Malmo, Sweden in 2014, ended up being Carrick’s saving grace.
“I came back to North America with a little more confidence than I had before I went over,” he said. “It was just so important for me to remember what it was like to be a leader, and really, really just be yourself. It’s your first year – you’re nervous about everything, you know?”
Carrick’s experience on the ice is impressive for his age. He cut his teeth with the U.S. National Development Team in 2010, preparing him for a breakout season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers in 2012-13. Add to that two gold medals from international play with Team USA, and Carrick’s future on the blue line shines bright.
“He’s a kid that’s still developing, [but] he’s got a tremendous upside,” said Hershey head coach Troy Mann. “One of his strengths is certainly his vision – he sees the plays very well. His breakout ability is another. He’s an offensive defenseman who’s going to have plenty of opportunities to anchor one of our power play units.”
During his year in Plymouth, Carrick netted 12 goals and 44 points in 68 games and finished with a plus-27 rating, seizing the opportunity given to him by the Whalers to come in and play big minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill. Those minutes became crucial in the long run, allowing him to play in every situation and gain a better feel for his role on the ice – something he’s continuing this season in Hershey.
“It’s been fun to be able to come back and try and play bigger minutes, that way when you come into a game you’re more used to handling the puck and you’re more confident in being able to bring a play in,” Carrick said.
The additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik over the summer in Washington have deepened the organization’s blue line, something that isn’t lost on Carrick. But knowing that there is always someone willing to take your place is a motivator to constantly play at a high level, and the environment that surrounds him in Hershey is one that spawns high intensity performance.
“I think here in Hershey we’ve created a great environment for the players that once they settle in, they know that the ultimate goal is to get back to the NHL,” Mann said. “But at the same time, they need to work on areas they have to get better at to make sure that the next time they get called up, they’re up there full time.”
Mann was an assistant coach with the Bears when they won their most recent Calder Cup in 2010, coaching current Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner. It’s this success that has Mann confident in the Hershey – and by extension, AHL – formula.
“There’s nothing wrong with developing at the AHL level, especially when it comes to defensemen because they tend to mature a little bit later,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re 100 percent ready when they do get up there.”
Like any line of work, pro hockey comes with its own set of unwritten rules: Where to sit on the bus, who to go grab a quick lunch with, where to sit during film. Little things that people on the perimeter of the game don’t see as day-to-day issues become a nerve-wracking exercise of fitting into the bigger picture. Carrick isn’t a stranger to this, still finding his way both on and off the ice. But on nights where turnovers lead to goals, or plays go awry because of a misstep, Carrick’s level of maturity far exceeds his age.
“I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older, because I realized the ineffectiveness of sulking,” he said. “The game is going to go on with or without you. You’ve just got to get back on the horse.”
Nobody’s future in pro sports is guaranteed. In an organization as deep as Washington’s, the drive to be consistent every night is paramount, but the knowledge of knowing he is a part of something great helps keep that drive alive.
“There is a very, very qualified defenseman there to pick up some of the minutes you’re willing to give up by not executing,” he said. “We’ve definitely got a really good defensive core here. I’m proud to be a part of that.”