Two weeks ago tonight, rookie Caps defenseman Connor Carrick was pretty pumped. The 19-year-old native of Orland Park, Ill. got to play in his first NHL preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Tonight, Carrick will be amped just a little bit higher. He’s suiting up for the Caps in their final 2013 preseason game against his hometown Blackhawks at Chicago’s United Center. He’s very familiar with the building.
“The playoff run in 2010,” recalls Carrick, “I went to a couple of games and the atmosphere and those memories are still pretty strong with me.”
Carrick played against the Hawks at Verizon Center last Friday night in the Capitals’ home preseason opener. When the young blueliner first reported to Caps’ rookie camp in Arlington early in September, he was well aware of Washington’s preseason schedule, and specifically its Sept. 28 opponent.
“I remember talking about it at the beginning with my family,” Carrick admits. “They’re like, ‘You know the last preseason game is in Chicago?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I kind of circled it and made it a goal to still be around, but only in my own head; I didn’t talk about it really with anybody else. I just took a day-by-day approach and enough of them passed to get me to here.”
Nineteen-year-old defensemen aren’t sprinkled liberally amongst the rosters of the 30 NHL clubs. Teenaged defensemen – even many of those prodigies who are drafted in the early stages of the first round – often need a year or two (or more) of seasoning at lower levels of junior or pro hockey before they’re trusted enough to occupy a spot in an NHL team’s top six.
Today is the last day of the Caps’ 2013 training camp, and Carrick is one of 10 defensemen who woke up with their names still on Washington’s camp roster. When camp started, most figured Carrick would get into a few preseason games and head back to Plymouth somewhere around the midpoint of camp. That’s the general arc for fifth-round draft choices with junior eligibility remaining some 15 months after their draft day.
When Carrick started opening some eyes with his poised and heady play in his preseason appearances, expectations got bumped a bit. The Caps’ AHL Hershey affiliate began to loom as a likely destination for Carrick for 2013-14.
“All it takes is a little bit of confidence,” says Carrick. “You’ve got to go out there and zip passes around and respect everybody, but you can’t fear anybody. That’s been the biggest thing for me. I feel like I’ve gotten better each practice, each period during the games for that reason. The comfort level is really important as a hockey player, especially the way I try to think the game. I think I’ve gotten better.”
Because he was not a Canadian Hockey League player at the time he was drafted in 2012, Carrick is eligible to play in the AHL this season, unlike fellow 2012 draftee and Plymouth teammate Tom Wilson. (Although he is weeks older than Carrick, Wilson must either make the NHL club or be returned to Plymouth. The AHL is not an option for him.)
Washington has steadily whittled its camp roster from 70 players down to 29. The Caps can keep a maximum of 23 for Tuesday night’s season opener, also in Chicago against the Hawks. Anyone who lasts through to the final day of camp has a crack at cracking the opening night roster.
Last Monday night, Carrick played more than 26 minutes against a Boston team that dressed a significant number of NHL forwards. He scored a goal and acquitted himself well. Last night at Verizon Center, he skated more than 22 minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers, who dressed virtually their expected opening night roster. Carrick finished with three assists.
He has met every challenge, and with one more looming tonight, his name is now in the mix for an opening night roster spot in the District.
“Confidence,” repeats Carrick, asked about his games against the Bruins and Flyers this week. "The fact that I did some things that I liked against each team.
“The biggest thing I think I’ve learned is that you have to chalk up some of your mistakes sometimes to [your opponent] just making really good plays. You’re not always going to make the perfect play; sometimes you have to just take what they give you. You learn that pretty quick when you’re playing against [Philadelphia’s Claude] Giroux and [Boston’s Milan] Lucic and [David] Krejci and those guys, and [Chicago’s] Jonathan Toews the one night. It’s been really fun, though.”
Carrick expects plenty of family members and friends on hand tonight to see him play against the Blackhawks. He’s been asked consistently for days whether he’d be playing in the Windy City on Saturday.
“As soon as I walked in and I saw my name on the board,” relates Carrick, “I texted my dad. Because people have been asking me, ‘Are you playing? If so, I want to come.’ I wasn’t going to have them try to buy tickets and me be the bad guy [if I didn’t end up playing]. So I told them, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ Until today. It will be a lot of fun. I’m really excited.”
Chicago has won two of the last four Stanley Cup championships, but the team’s footprint wasn’t as deep in the Chicago sporting landscape during Carrick’s childhood.
”They weren’t on TV so it was really tough,” notes Carrick. “Growing up, [Tony] Amonte had the ‘C’ and I just loved captains when I was a kid. Amonte had the ‘C’ which was cool. As I got older, I started watching them a bit more. Then they got Duncan Keith in the system and I like the way he plays and [Nick] Leddy. Those are a couple of my favorite Hawks.”
Tonight, Carrick shares the United Center ice with them.