There was a noticeable, bold mark under Connor Carrick’s eye after last night’s Calder Cup Playoff game against the Albany Devils. It’s been there for a couple of days now, though if you said it came from the scrum the two teams had at the end of the third period, nobody would have doubted you. “Things happen in the playoffs.” the young defenceman said afterward. “It happens in the NHL, happens in the AHL, it’s a physical game out there.”
Carrick hasn’t been shy to stick up for himself this postseason, often finding himself pushing and shoving after whistles and throwing his body in spite of his 5’10, 190-pound frame. But that’s not the only place where he’s made his presence known; this spring, he’s been no stranger to the scoresheet.
Through five games in these playoffs, Carrick has an absurd four goals and six assists from the point. That not only leads the Marlies in scoring, it also leads the entire league, with Wilkes-Barre centre Jake Guentzel trailing behind by two points. Carrick has been so productive that he’s only four points away from equalling Bobby Sanguinetti’s 14 points from last year’s playoffs, which were the most by a defenceman and required 18 more games.
On one hand, it would be more than a little out there to declare that Carrick is the next Erik Karlsson and that these playoffs are his coming out party. After all, we’ve seen this story before; Jerry D’Amigo won the city’s heart after scoring six points in a first-round sweep of Rochester (his current team) in 2011/12 and shot up everybody’s prospect rankings as a result. Four years later, and those six points are twice as many as he’s put up in his NHL career to date at 25 years old. Small samples can make players look crazy good or crazy bad; Carrick currently has the former going for him. On the other hand, though, it’s hard not be intrigued by the impact that he’s made on the team since arriving.
What’s interesting about Carrick’s run of form is how meaningful his contributions have been. I don’t mean that in the “clutch factor” way, though he was key in both of the rallies that created both of Toronto’s recent victories. What’s important is that the points amassed are about as quality as you can get.
Sure, five of his points came on the same night, but over half of them came as part of a hat trick that included a seeing-eye slapper from the point and an incredibly sharp pinch to pot home the game-tying goal. Remove that night, and he still has five points in the other four games.
The same goes for special teams. It’s easy to note that four of Carrick’s points came on the powerplay, but that still leaves him with six even strength points in five games. Not to mention, giving new life to the powerplay has been one of Carrick’s most crucial and most successful duties.
“These guys put together a heck of a regular season. My goal is just to come in and add whatever element I could that the coaching staff wanted me to, try to read the players, and see what I could bring,” Carrick said of his role with the team. “maybe what the team wasn’t lacking, but could use more of.”
Toronto certainly wasn’t lacking on the powerplay compared to the rest of the league this season, but they were playing below their own expectation. Despite leading the league in goals, averaging the 4th-most shots per game, and having the second highest all-situations shooting percentage this year, the Marlies had just the 10th best powerplay unit in the league at a 17.4% efficiency.
Despite the talent on the roster, a lot of that comes from their predictability, particularly on the top unit. Having a player like TJ Brennan, who is the best offensive defenceman in the league and probably skilled enough to put up points at the NHL level as well is great when the play is a bit more fluid, but teams know to give him a hard time on the powerplay. Don’t get me wrong; he still gets the job done pretty often, but teams have figured out that it’s better to suffocate him to avoid his shot getting to the net than to keep the forwards covered. The coaching staff has tried to alleviate that at times by using a fourth forward, but while the Marlies had their best powerplay ranking since 2009 this year, it still wasn’t up to expectation.
It’s still too early to tell whether it’ll last, but Carrick has changed that early in these playoffs. He’s a quick thinker with puck dispersal skills and a half decent shot of his own, which has given Brennan a bit more opportunity to roam; all three of his powerplay goals have seen Carrick pick up the primary assist. The last two were particularly good examples of their synergy; Carrick’s control of the point allowed Brennan to curl into the right wing to find his shot. “He’s been great since he’s been here,” Brennan said of his linemate after Carrick’s 5-point night on April 28th. “to see him get rewarded is a great thing. He’s a great young player who does all the right things.” Despite facing the 9th and 2nd best penalty-killing units in the league, they’ve improved by 4% in the playoffs, with Carrick getting points on every goal.
It’s also worth noting that Carrick hasn’t been a passenger in any situation. Of his ten points amassed, just one of them was a secondary assist. All five of his other helpers saw him as the primary setup man or the point shot that led to a deflection or a rebound. Not only is he amassing points, but he’s creating the goals that lead to them.
While it’s still early in the process, it’s looking more and more likely by the day that the Leafs ran away with their trade that landed him. Carrick was just a single piece in a deal that saw the Leafs acquire himself, Brooks Laich, and a 2nd round pick for Daniel Winnik and a 5th rounder in February. Laich has proven to be a mentor on a young team that needs a voice, pick upgrades are great, and Winnik was known to be an eventual short-sell from the moment he was signed. But the Illinois native might just be the pick of the litter; after a decent showing late in the season with the Leafs, these few weeks have made it evident why scouts believe him to have a more permanent NHL future.
For the 22-year-old, however, the focus is not on his own climb up the prospect ladder, but his team’s push in the present. “It’s what you play for all year. The dog days in January, you grind through those, you can play real meaningful games. That’s the reason why you grind it out all year long so that you can play a team like this in a series like this.” If he keeps this up, there should be more than a few games left to play this spring.