Quick, name which RHD in the Leafs’ organization has the most NHL games played. Connor Carrick is still only 24, and yet going into his fourth Leaf season, the question remains: what do we have in Carrick?

Well, to start with: we have our #10 on the Top 25 Under 25.

The Player

Connor Carrick is a 5’10”, right-shooting defenceman who seems almost to have been made in a lab to appeal to Leaf nerds.  He’s posted solidly positive shot differentials every year since arriving in Toronto (53.2% for the whole span, adjusted at 5v5); he does similarly well in expected goals (52.9% over the same period.)  He can skate and pass effectively and looks, in many respects, like the modern NHL defender.  He gives smart interview answers and trails only Kyle Dubas in the “Men In The Leafs Org Who Look Good In Rimmed Glasses” power rankings.  He checks all the boxes.

Unfortunately for Carrick, he has been less successful checking the boxes of someone much more influential than Leaf Twitter: Mike Babcock.  In the 2017 series against the Washington Capitals, Carrick played a bare minimum of minutes despite the Leafs missing Nikita Zaitsev and then Roman Polak with injuries at different points.  Last season, he was continually losing his job to the aforementioned Polak, causing much Internet angst.  Why is that?

The shortest answer is that Babcock doesn’t trust Carrick to kill penalties.  Over the last three seasons, Carrick has spent 24 minutes at 4v5; Polak has spent just shy of 548.  It’s hard to make anything out of shot and goal differentials in such a tiny sample for Carrick (for what it’s worth, his numbers in those 24 minutes were awful), but what really matters is that thus far Babcock has not had confidence in him to play, and has looked for alternatives.  At 5v5, when he’s played Carrick, Babcock has played him third pair and in shelter when possible, which also suggests something about Babcock’s confidence.

To some observers, this is a mistake from the coach.  Carrick puts up good 5v5 numbers; 5v5 is where most of the game is played, and the Leafs should play him.  He’s even had a positive +/- the last two years (though so did Polak.)  Carrick does have a bad penchant for taking obstruction penalties, and that suggests he’s having some troubles, but other than that, someone scanning his numbers will want to play him based on those numbers.  Thus far that’s happened only to a limited degree.

The eye test likes Carrick less than the numbers do, to me.  He’s very fond of firing off not-super-effective shots from the right point, although he’s moderated this more in the last year.  He’s feisty and energetic, sometimes to a fault.  He can play the power play, but he has no realistic prospect of doing so for the Leafs, given that Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner have the two available defence jobs on the PP and that Nikita Zaitsev is the obvious first understudy.  Carrick has made a couple of memorable mistakes in his own zone with muffin passes into the middle of the ice; isolated mistakes are not a fair thing to judge him on, but they probably didn’t do him any favours in his quest to stay in the lineup.  It’s possible to see why he might not totally earn the confidence of a coach.  He also had one run before this year where he rode the Jake Gardiner Corsi Train to great results; Carrick has done well without him, too, but Gardiner has goosed fancy stats for his partners before.

The Leafs extended Carrick this summer because there was no reason not to. He was an RFA, he wasn’t expensive, and the Leafs need RHD.  Roman Polak is also out of the organization, and there’s no other veteran with a ton of NHL PK experience to put Carrick out of work unless Martin Marincin makes his triumphant return from the Marlies.  Carrick would seem to have the inside track on the 3RD job, at the least.  But if he can’t get it from Mike Babcock this year, he probably doesn’t have a future in this organization.

The Stats

Connor Carrick via Elite Prospects

2007-2008Chicago Fury Bantam Minor AAAT1EMBHL3111203124
2008-2009Chicago Fury Bantam Major AAAT1EBHL3121284922
2009-2010Chicago Fury U16T1EHL U16377152248
Chicago Fury U18T1EHL U18222462
2010-2011USNTDP JuniorsUSHL3616742Playoffs20002
U.S. National U17 TeamUSDP534162052
USA U17WHC-1752570
2011-2012USNTDP JuniorsUSHL2114530
U.S. National U18 TeamUSDP578132146
USA U18WJC-1862242
2012-2013Plymouth WhalersOHL6812324479Playoffs15216186
2013-2014Washington CapitalsNHL3415623
Hershey BearsAHL1304415
USA U20WJC-2050334
2014-2015Hershey BearsAHL7383442132Playoffs1022412
2015-2016Washington CapitalsNHL30000
Hershey BearsAHL4710162650
Toronto Maple LeafsNHL1622415
Toronto MarliesAHL51232Playoffs157111812
2016-2017Toronto Maple LeafsNHL6726851Playoffs60004
2017-2018Toronto Maple LeafsNHL47481227
2018-2019Toronto Maple LeafsNHL-----

The Voters

There was a fairly tight spread on Carrick; Species (9th) and Hardev (13th) were the high and low votes and the rest of us were in between.

Here are Katya’s thoughts, after ranking him 12th:

The Leafs had two different defence corps last year. They had the top four — Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev — who played bigger minutes, tougher competition, most of the special teams minutes, and they also spent time with all four lines at league average amounts. That means they played with Matthews a lot more than they did the fourth line.

The second corps was a rotating cast of low-minute players -- Roman Polak, Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman — who were the third pair most of the time, although the first three filled in for top four roles when players were injured or, in Dermott’s case, because he the was cream of this crop and was being tested. He passed. Mostly.

Carrick, however, struggled to see any game time, playing no playoff time. Beyond that, his usage was singular among the second corps of defenders. No one played more when the game mattered less than Connor Carrick.

We can see this usage in two ways. First, in terms of leverage, or score state, he was on the ice much more when a goal for or against mattered the least. So when the Leafs were either really winning or really losing and the game was essentially over, Carrick got moved up the lineup to play with Jake Gardiner, whose minutes never varied much. Second, he was played in meaningless late-season games against bad teams while Roman Polak of all people was saved for the good teams.

His low-leverage usage is in marked contrast to the previous season where his ice time was skewed to the need for offence. That superficially made sense. If you eye-test his play, you will see a defender who shoots the puck a lot and who is in the offensive zone a lot.

However, by shooting the puck almost as much as Rielly, with much less scoring talent, he’s taking shots when he should be passing. He also shoots from the right point almost exclusively, whereas Rielly walks the line or moves in to make better plays. Rielly’s unblocked shot rate is much higher than Carrick’s. Carrick’s is so low as to make his efforts seem futile, and in fact he barely got more shots through than Polak. This is a failing of Andreas Borgman and Travis Dermott as well, but with them, we can hope their dumb rookie tricks will wear off.

Digging deeper into his stats, the same Relative Expected Goals stats from Corsica that I looked at for Andreas Borgman, you see a man who has no positive effect on the offensive side of the game, unlike the dumb rookies.

He does show some defensive ability, which fights with the eye-test, but I’ll bow to the numbers, and he does have very good overall shot differentials in a very gentle usage. But to play with top lines, you can’t be a null actor offensively. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his usage when scoring a goal was most important fell off year over year.

He has the wrong special teams skills to get in the lineup that way, and really, if he were left handed, we’d assume he’d be traded for a sixth. What he can do is plausibly fill-in in the top four without causing endless periods of defensive zone play, so as a press box extra, he’s ideal. And that’s what he might well stay on as. On another team with different needs, he might really fit the bill.

I had Carrick 10th and I didn’t really feel like there was much room to move him either up or down from there. He’s an NHL-calibre RHD on a team that does not have enough of those.  And yet it’s hard to be that excited at this point.  I’m more cautious than I used to be about the third-pair defencemen with great Corsi stats, and I can’t help thinking that if he were able to change the game in the Leafs’ top four he wouldn’t have gotten put out of work by Roman Polak.  Still, he does have those great numbers, and maybe now he’s finally going to get a chance.  If not now, I don’t know think it happens in Toronto.