In 2016-17, Connor Carrick led all Toronto Maple Leafs (with 200+ minutes of five-on-five ice time) in Corsi-for percentage. He also led the team in Corsi-for per hour, beating highly productive forwards like Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Yet, he recorded just two goals and eight points in 67 games—his points-per-60 rate of 0.42 was worse than any other Leaf.
So what's going on?
There are a few easy ways to explain Carrick's curious numbers.
For one, Carrick played extremely sheltered minutes, starting just 28.2% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Secondly, he spent most of his ice time paired with Jake Gardiner, who is arguably the team's top defender. And finally, the Gardiner-Carrick pairing frequently teamed up with the top two forward lines.
But, with all that in mind, why did Gardiner lead all Leafs defencemen with 23 even-strength points while Carrick just couldn't produce?
In Stimson's model, Carrick is considered a 'volume shooter.' As you can see in the visualisation, Carrick has a high shot volume and a great influence on his team's shot rate. However, what stands out is that his plays very rarely result in dangerous shots. Furthermore, he rarely sets up his teammates for shots.
If you watched the Leafs all of last season, this might be exactly what you noticed. Take this sequence from a game against the Boston Bruins as an example.
Carrick gets the puck off a face-off and fires it right at the net. At this point, there isn't much else he could've done other than throwing it deep, but he might as well attempt a shot at the net—nothing wrong here. When he gets the puck a second time, however, the situation is different.
There, Carrick gets the puck deep in the corner near the blue line. A Boston forward takes a few quick steps toward him, but quickly goes over into a glide to attempt a shot block. When Carrick unwinds for the shot, the forward is still in the circle and far from pressuring Carrick. Here, he easily could have—and should have—taken a few steps closer. Carrick shoots a lot, but he often does so from low-danger areas.
Here's a sequence where he did a much better job, which resulted in a much more dangerous scoring chance and eventually a goal.
Again, Carrick is skating relatively close to the blue line and gets a pass. He takes a few steps toward the net, takes a quick snapshot and forces the goalie to make a save. The shot itself isn't very hard, nor was it difficult to save; yet, it resulted in a goal, and there's a reason why.
Take a look at this freeze frame.
By moving in toward the net, Carrick forces the Detroit Red Wings to retreat. Instead of pressuring him high, they collapse in front of the net. By the time the puck leaves his stick, four of five Red Wings are below the hashmarks. In addition, the Leafs attackers follow up on the play, being ready for deflections and rebounds. Instead of taking a low-danger shot against a well-positioned defence, Carrick creates danger and forces the defence to adjust.
A look at Carrick's other goal contributions reveals unsurprising results.
A goal from in close.
An assist from in close.
Carrick only got a point with a quick shot from a low-danger position once, and it was a result of (bad) luck.
Here, Carrick takes a shot as soon as he gets the puck. His stick breaks, turning his shot into an unintended pass—and an assist.
Carrick was known as a two-way player with offensive tendencies from his junior and AHL years. He is a capable skater with strong hockey IQ and puck skills, giving him all the tools he needs to contribute offensively. At the NHL level, however, he preferred to keep it simple.
Perhaps he didn't want to screw up in his first full NHL season—there is no doubt that pinching is a risky move for defencemen. Take another look at the assist against Detroit.
In this frame, shortly after Carrick receives the puck, the Red Wings have one forward positioned ahead of all five Maple Leafs. If Carrick turned the puck over—and there are plenty of ways this could happen—a breakaway for Detroit could have been the result. But, as long as he takes calculated risks, which he is clearly capable of doing, pinching frequently could greatly improve his offensive output.
Perhaps added confidence from a second year in the NHL is all it takes to turn Carrick into a true two-way defenceman. But, there is likely more to it.
Holding him back
Another issue that could hold him back is Carrick's most frequent defensive partner. Gardiner is a proven two-way defenceman who likes to be aggressive on the attack. He frequently pinches to keep plays alive and to create danger around the net. When one defender plays aggressively and takes a fair amount of risks in doing so, the other needs to cover for him.
But Gardiner does not only take risks and play an aggressive style. He also does so successfully, as shown in Sean Tierney's (@ChartingHockey) visualisation of Dawson Sprigings' (@DTMAboutHeart) expected-plus-minus data (read up on it here).
According to this data, Gardiner has both the highest offensive and the highest defensive impact of all Leafs D-men. His closest comparables here are Mark Giordano, Jason Demers, Brian Campbell and Ryan Ellis. This also shows that Gardiner clearly has an above-average offensive impact compared to the rest of the league. Close comparables in this category include Colton Parayko, Seth Jones, Brent Burns, and Torey Krug.
As always, take this with a grain of salt, but it's clear that Gardiner plays a successful two-way game. Which leads us to an important question: If Gardiner does well offensively and Carrick is effective in the defensive end, making the duo an incredibly successful pairing, why should we care about Carrick's offensive output?
It's simple: In today's NHL, defencemen need to be capable of moving the puck and contributing in the offensive zone.
Because of that, a player with offensive upside, like Carrick, should never be held back. Rather, he should be paired with a more defensive-minded player who does not possess the same offensive capabilities. That way, Carrick would get more freedom in the offensive zone and, as a result, could increase his production.
The Maple Leafs' scariest defensive paring (for fans, that is) of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak was let go in free agency. As a replacement for Hunwick, Toronto brought in Stanley Cup champion Ron Hainsey. If you go back to the expected-plus-minus chart, do you see the Pittsburgh Penguins logo relatively far up to the top left? That's Hainsey—a high-impact defensive player.
Theoretically, Hainsey should be the perfect partner for Carrick. The 36-year-old has never been much of a scorer. Rather, he plays a steady, reliable defensive game, which should give Carrick all the freedom he needs, without having to worry about screwing up.
Pair Carrick with Hainsey, give him the go to take some risks and make plays, and you've got yourself a player.