Connor Carrick will be the first to tell you that as a 19-year-old defenseman he was living the dream last season as a member of the Washington Capitals.
“I feel like I’d have a better grip on it by now, but it still feels very surreal,” Carrick said on Wednesday after parachuting in for a one-day visit to the Caps’ weeklong development camp, which continues with a 4:15 p.m. scrimmage today at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“I’ve gone back and watched game films and what’s incredible is you see the logo on the ice and realize that is the VerizonCenter. That is me. That is, in fact, Alex Ovechkin on my right side and Nick Backstrom up the middle taking the faceoff. I treasure it even more.”
In 34 games with the Caps last season Carrick recorded one goal, five assists, 23 penalty minutes and was a minus-9 while averaging 15:58 of ice time a night.
But it was also a disjointed season for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of Orland Park, Ill. Ten days after playing in the Caps’ season opener in front of dozens of family and friends in Chicago, Carrick was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears, where he played 13 games [0 goals, 4 assists, minus-3] before joining Team USA for the World Junior Championships, where he picked up three assists in five games.
The Caps recalled Carrick on Jan. 8 and he played 27 consecutive games before being made a healthy scratch for three weeks. He closed out the season with four straight appearances, but when general manager George McPhee was replaced by Brian MacLellan about six weeks later, MacLellan said he wished he would have seen Carrick play more, presumably in the American League.
“The thing about last year is that it’s over,” said Carrick, who is now 20. “It’s not like I can go back and play more somewhere else or had a bigger role, or played more with the Caps or not at all with the Caps. You cannot get that time back.
“My opinion is I know what I leaned. I learned some things the hard way and what I can confidently say is that if I were to choose between playing elsewhere last year or having the experience I actually did, I am more confident with the latter going into camp.
“The awe factor is not gone. I’m still amazed by NHL players and I’m as big a fan as anybody else. But say a guy is coming towards the net. You’re not going to think twice about cross-checking him. You know he knows this is a normal hockey play and he’s not going to get up and two-hand you.”
Carrick recalled a play just like that in a preseason game against the Boston Bruins when power forward Milan Lucic barreled in on him on a 3-on-2.
“I cross-checked him across the hips and took him out of the play and readied myself for what might happen,” Carrick said, “and nothing did. This is what these guys do. So I definitely feel more confident going into training camp than if I had taken a different route last year.”
Exactly where Carrick fits on the Caps’ training camp depth chart is unclear. A right-handed shot, he currently sits behind John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner and Mike Green. Which makes the battle for the No. 6 defenseman a fight between Dmitry Orlov, Jack Hillen, John Erskine and Carrick, with top defensive prospect Madison Bowey not far behind.
“I think 6-7-8 will be competitive,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said.
“They might be further down the depth chart to start the year but it doesn’t mean their not going to play [NHL] games,” Trotz said. “You get injuries, maybe we make a move, but it can change in a heartbeat. The young guys are going to push for those two spots.”
Trotz said he would not consider it a setback if Carrick began the season in Hershey and increased his role as a top-line, puck-moving defenseman.
“Being in Hershey and playing huge minutes in important situations, I’ve never heard a player not get better doing that,” Trotz said. “That’s not a bad worst-case, to be in Hershey with the great organization they have.”
As a fifth-round draft choice in 2012 [137th overall] who was not even under contract until last September, Carrick said he’s always fared well when challenged and is anxious to show the Capitals’ new coaching staff that he can be a better player than he was last year, regardless of where he plays.
“People a lot smarter than me made those decisions [to sign Orpik and Niskanen],” Carrick said. “Props to them. I know the team is very excited to have them and I look forward to meeting them and, hopefully, playing beside them.”