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Playoffs set stage for Carrick to break out

May 2, 2014
Graig Abel Photography

by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com

If you’re not familiar with Sam Carrick already, you will be soon.

The second-year center is turning heads in his first full American Hockey League campaign, amassing 35 points on 14 goals and 21 assists in 62 games with the Toronto Marlies during the regular season. Six of his 14 goals were game-winners, and he also led all Marlies forwards in plus/minus rating (+17).

Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Draft, Carrick spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League with Brampton before spending most of his first pro season in the ECHL.

He made his AHL debut with the Marlies on Mar. 2, 2013, and notched four points in 19 games down the stretch. He also appeared in five Calder Cup Playoff contests last spring.

“Sammy is a good example of a player that’s taken advantage of an opportunity,” said Marlies head coach Steve Spott, also in his first year with the club. “Coming into this season, we weren’t sure how much of a role he would play for us. At times this year, he’s been our number one center, and he’s delivered.”

Carrick, 22, has played at both center and right wing on a number of lines at various points this season, something his coach believes speaks to his value as a player.

“He can kill penalties or play on the power play,” said Spott. “Having that versatility has allowed him to gain valuable minutes on the ice. He’s a very trusted player and I think that’s why I feel comfortable playing him at all of those situations.”

For Carrick, who hails from Markham, Ont., wearing multiple hats – both offensive and defensively – is a must as he awaits his first recall to the Leafs.

“I try to be as versatile as possible,” said Carrick. “If I’m going to play [in the NHL], I have to be a reliable guy on both ends of the ice, so I try not to be one-dimensional and try to work on all aspects of the game.”

But Spott attests that it’s as much Carrick’s temperament off the ice as it is around the rink that has developed throughout the season.

“This game has such a large mental aspect to it, and confidence plays such a big role,” said Spott. “Sam comes to the rink confident every day, knowing he is a go-to player now. I think he welcomes that responsibility and thrives on the pressure.”

With the Marlies, who captured their third straight North Division title after posting a 96 points this season, Carrick has continued to build on the skills he’s established during his prolific rise up the professional ranks.

“I just try to keep on improving,” said Carrick. “That’s the biggest thing, and I think I’ve done that throughout my career, starting in juniors [up] until now. All I can really control is how much more I improve, and that comes down to hard work.”

According to his coach, it’s that sense of diligence in combination with his natural ability that will propel Carrick to the next step in his hockey career – the National Hockey League.

“I firmly believe he’s going to be an NHL player because of his versatility and his physical attributes,” said Spott. “He’s a really hard guy to play against, he’s very intense and he also has the ability to score. I think any coach that has a player like that would love him, because he’s very self-motivated.”

The Marlies completed a first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Admirals on Thursday, and Carrick believes the AHL’s postseason is the perfect stage to show the Maple Leafs organization what he’s made of.

“Teams want winners,” said Carrick. “For every guy in the AHL, their goal is to play in the NHL one day, and I think the best way to do that is to win [a Calder Cup]. That’s our main focus right now.”

It’s safe to say the 6-foot forward is off to an impressive start – he’s leading the league in postseason goals, notching three in as many games so far.

“We have a pretty young team, and a lot of people didn’t really expect us to go very far in the playoffs, let alone win the division,” said Carrick. “I think we’re all big believers that with team success comes individual success.

“The fact that I’ve gotten off to a good start now in the playoffs and had a good finish to the season, I have to give a lot of credit to my line and teammates … it’s kind of translated into my success.”

As the Marlies continue to roll, Carrick is garnering essential experience competing in high-pressure games.

“It’s critical,” said Spott. “We’ve had a little bit of success [so far], but we’re going to deal with adversity, and that reveals character. I know that once we do, Sammy will be able to handle it the right way.”

With his NHL dreams in sight, Carrick remains fixated on the task at hand: bringing a Calder Cup to Toronto.

“The playoffs are usually a roller coaster of emotions, and whoever can contain them the most usually goes the furthest,” said Carrick. “We know we have a great team in our locker room, and that’s as far as it goes – just take it game by game, shift by shift.”