Believing in Connor Carrick, the crown jewel of this rebuild’s seminal trade

Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS

When all is said and done, I wouldn’t be against Daniel Winnik getting a spot on Legends Row. Yes, the Left Winger only played 114 games in Blue and White, and scored just 11 goals and 39 points. Very rarely was he even afforded top-six minutes, let alone the ability to become a game breaker on the ice. Nor should he have been, honestly; we’re talking about a player who has cracked 30 points once in his career.

But in two consecutive years, this man decided to sign short-term deals for his hometown team, and in two consecutive years, he was moved for pieces that would create part of the foundation for a new era for the team. Maybe not so much the first time around, where his picks were sent elsewhere (or even back to Pittsburgh) a few months later, but his second exchange may prove to be foundational in the long run.

Despite not being as successful in his second tour of duty as his first, scoring just 14 points in 56 games, Winnik was once again placed on the market ahead of the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. Perhaps better for his odds of being cashed out was the fact that he was in the midst of a two-year contract, meaning that his suitor was going to be able to retain him.

On a day that would be the last of February in most years, the Leafs took a great leap forward in sending Winnik, along with a 5th round pick, to the Washington Capitals. In return, the team received Connor Carrick, Brooks Laich, and a second round draft pick.

Initially, the move was seen as a simple trade up scenario: Toronto took in a bit of extra cap space by moving from Winnik to Laich, got a maybe in Carrick, but also turned a 5th rounder into a second rounder. I think there’s a significant amount of the fanbase who still see it that way, as the Leafs buying a draft pick using cap space. While technically true, I don’t think the players involved should be written off as mere byproducts. 

This is particularly true of Connor Carrick. If this move is this build’s version of the Beauchemin to Anaheim trade, Carrick may just well be the Jake Gardiner of the package.

Carrick was, in a lot of ways, one of the most under-appreciated prospects in the Washington Capitals system. You could even say underappreciated by all, seeing as he was selected in the middle of the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.

It’s not hard to see why, though. Carrick comes in small for a defenceman at 5’10, 191 pounds, and he certainly didn’t have the muscle that he has now when he was 18. His production with the US National Development team wasn’t exactly mindblowing either; the Orland Park, Illinois native scored just five points in 21 games.

But looking at that roster, he was also a right-handed defenceman on a team that included Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones, along with recent Rangers revelation Brady Skjei, towering in at 6’3, on the left side. Even if the key was developing players, there wasn’t a ton of room for him to compete with bigger, more skilled, and higher touted prospects considered to be future cornerstones for USA Hockey.

The Capitals were wise and moved him to the CHL for his next year. There, he played 68 games with the Plymouth Whalers. While hindsight shows that the team didn’t have a ton of top end future NHL talent (Vincent Trochek and Rickard Rakell being the standouts to date), Carrick finished second in scoring among the team’s defencemen and produced two-thirds of a point per game on a team that had nobody with more than 65 total points on the season. 

Carrick made the NHL at 19 but didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself; the youngster played less than 16 minutes a night, played half of his time with a broken-down John Erskine, and didn’t get to spend much time in the offensive zone. But even still, it was clear that he had been rushed up a bit too fast, even if the situation he was placed in wasn’t the greatest. What was surprising, though, is that from that point on, he’d play just three more games for Washington, all last season.

That’s despite picking up 42 points with the Hershey Bears in 2014/15, fifteen more than any defenceman on the team. That’s despite him showing a relentless, more physical side, dropping the gloves six times and racking up 132 penalty minutes. Of course, some of that was a lack of discipline, but it showed that he was willing to play bigger than his frame.

That’s despite him continuing the scoring pace his Age 21 year, picking up 10 goals and 16 assists in 47 games with Hershey last year. That put him just three away from team defence leader Madison Bowey, who needed 23 more games to get them with a much higher pedigree to his name. Carrick waited and waited, for his time, and instead, was shipped off.

What was the Capitals’ loss instantaneously became Toronto’s gain. Carrick played half of his even-strength minutes with Jake Gardiner and was one of the few defenceman who brought up his puck possession numbers. In fact, going down the list of ice time, that was a reoccurring pattern.

Connor Carrick made Brooks Laich better. He made Ben Smith Better. He made Colin Greening better, he made William Nylander better, he made Martin Marincin Better, he made Zach Hyman better, he made PA Parenteau Better, he made Peter Holland better. Every single player that he played at least 45 minutes with, he made better from a puck possession standpoint. The sample is small, but it’s very promising.

Speaking of promising, small samples; those AHL playoffs.

Connor Carrick led the entire Calder Cup Playoffs in scoring this season. That’s impressive, given that the Toronto Marlies swept their best-of-five first round series, lost the third round in five games, and didn’t play in the finals. 

This was helped by him putting up one of the most dominant single-game performances this organization has seen in a long time. Many thought that his lone goal in a then 4-1 Game 3 against Bridgeport would be the closest the Marlies were going to get to victory that night, but the young defender added two more and a couple of assists over the span of a period and a half to pull them into a 6-4 final score.

But that wasn’t all for him. Carrick ended up with 18 points in 15 games over the course of the playoffs. He was only held off the scoresheet in five of those games and took an obscene 41 shots on goal, more than anybody on the team other than TJ Brennan and Josh Leivo.

It was a coming out party on a big stage for him, but anybody who had been watching his journey knew it was a long time coming. Since getting his first serious look at a major stage, Carrick has acclimated and excelled at every level, and the success he had in his look with the Leafs seems to imply that he’s ready to make that leap in the NHL.

As it so happens, the Leafs appear to be in a position to take him in and let him loose on the league. Toronto’s right side is unproven enough that it’s next to impossible to show bias against a player because of his inexperience, with only Roman Polak standing out as a right-handed veteran. It’ll be hard to argue against Carrick in his place, though; he’s younger, he’s more mobile, he’s more offensively gifted, and while he doesn’t block a shot with his face every second shift, he’s just arguably meaner when he has to be and just as eager to cause trouble. Polak might be two inches taller and a little stockier, but the easiest way to be bigger is to be closer to the puck, and that’s a bet you can place in Carrick’s favour.

I wouldn’t be shocked if this year just scratches the surface for him either. He’s still just 22, and the Leafs managed to lock him up to an outrageously shrewd two-year, $750,000 per season deal. These are the market-beating moves you have to make to truly build a competitor; ones where you can take on some temporary “burden” when you have all the resources but no expectation, in an effort to convert it into a talent-dense, low-cost asset when money gets tight and ambitions are high.

That’s what they got here; a low-cost underdog with a chip on his shoulder, a history of defying odds, and ability to step in for peanuts at a position of weakness. Getting him alone makes this move a cornerstone decision, but as we’ll talk about in another post, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Also in the “Believing in” Series…

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