As much as we’ve enjoyed this late-season version of the Leafs with their new dose of youth, the fact remains that this is a team sitting thirtieth in a league of thirty. Whether this iteration of the roster would operate at that level if given the whole year is probably debatable, but as Mike Babcock has even alluded to recently, you have to be careful about buying too much into this kind of short-term success we’ve seen in the last week or so.
But even with all that in mind, we can still take look at some of these kids – a few now approaching the 15-game mark – to see how they’ve been performing to date, both production-wise and in terms of pushing play in the right direction. As we all know, these waves can, in fact, die, so it’s good to look at who’s been for real.
Perhaps the best story of this Leafs youth movement since the deadline is that of Connor Carrick. When Toronto pulled the trigger on the Winnik trade last month, most of the early response was “Yes, another draft pick”, referring to the second-rounder they picked up, but we then quickly learned that the Leafs were pretty high on Carrick and pushed to have him in the deal. He was no throw-in.
A glance at Carrick’s career numbers at first probably suggested to many of us he’s a project-type prospect, as he’s plugged away for most of the last two years at the AHL level after breaking in with the Capitals in 2013. And as we’ve come to learn with someone like T.J. Brennan, even with strong offensive numbers, breaking out of the AHL can be impossible for some, especially defencemen. But that’s more of a cautionary tale, and considering Carrick is still a youngster, his future is obviously more wide open. He’s actually a month younger than Morgan Rielly.
Considering all of this, it’s been somewhat surprising to see Carrick get such a good look with the big club right away. But the looks of things early on, it was the right call.
Now that we’ve had some time to evaluate the trade, it seems the Leafs were smart to key in on Carrick, as he was sort of a victim of circumstance with the Caps, a team in prime contention and loaded with depth on the blue-line for the long term. With a rebuilding team in Toronto he can immediately factor into their plans, and so far he’s shown why with Babcock and his crew giving him plenty of opportunity already.
In his audition with the Leafs (that will take him through the rest of the schedule), Carrick has already nabbed a pair of goals and assists through twelve games. While those obviously aren’t eye-popping numbers, it’s still an impressive 27-point pace over an entire schedule for a guy who’s tasked with about 15-16 minutes per night.
Connor Carrick goal pic.twitter.com/SMma5ctMxs
— Stephanie (@myregularface) March 20, 2016
Carrick’s underlying numbers have been strong as well, as he’s been clipping along at 55% in terms of score-adjusted Corsi For, also good for +2.3% relative to his teammates when he isn’t out there. Keep in mind he’s spent the majority of his time at even-strength alongside Gardiner, perhaps the Leafs’ best play-driver, but his numbers overall have looked fine.
Again, it’s early, and these numbers are through 15 games this season (including three with the Capitals), but it’s clear so far that Carrick is no anchor, or at least he hasn’t shown to be yet. At the very least, it’s hard to say he isn’t a strong upgrade on the blue-line compared someone like Roman Polak, a player who has almost zero offensive upside and carries the unfortunate tag of “defensive defenceman” (usually just a nicer name for someone who gets hemmed in their own zone all night). Carrick has some nice puck skills, and as his experience in the NHL grows, his reads and overall offensive instincts should only get better.
Given where the Capitals and Leafs are in terms of contention and organizational depth, the deal that sent Carrick to Toronto last month should be looked upon as a move that made sense for both clubs. And who knows, maybe Lamoriello finds another way to add to the defence corps and push him down the lineup before next season. But for now, management, the coaching staff, and fans alike should all be pleased with how he’s turned out so far given his place on the roster.