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2017 Top 25 Under 25: Connor Carrick checks in at #8

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Connor Carrick is a volume shooter. Nothing more. At least, that's what many seem to think. But is it true?

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Rangers

Connor Carrick is a curious case. The defenceman was his team's top possession player in his first full season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which should be enough to put him in the top-five conversation for this list. He was known as an offensive contributor in junior hockey, and didn't change his style in the AHL, where he put up seven goals and 18 points in 15 playoff games in 2015-16.

Yet, no one seems to believe in him. Why don't people believe in him?

Carrick scored just two goals along with six assists in 67 games last season. For a 5-foot-11 D-man with his skill set, that's not nearly enough. And looking at his impact through Domenic Galamini's (@MimicHero) HERO chart, it appears that Carrick really is nothing special.

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It is important to note that the chart includes the past three seasons rather than just the most recent one. The previous seasons drag down Carrick's shot suppression and first assists a little.

Still, Carrick is now 23 years old and should enter his prime soon. Yet, he looks ordinary. His shot suppression and point production are okay for a third-pairing player, but nothing more. He profited mightily from playing sheltered minutes with top D-man Jake Gardiner. Plus, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock decided to bench him for large parts of the playoffs, which matches Carrick's image among fans.

He's a volume shooter. Nothing more. At least, that's what many seem to think.

Kevin Papetti, who ranked Carrick eighth on his personal list as well, put it this way:

Carrick added value last season with his puck-moving skill, tenacity, and feistiness. He is already a legitimate NHL talent, and I ranked him over many of Toronto’s top prospects as a result. However, he did disappoint in the scoring department, and it is tough to tell how much of his strong shot-attempt differential was simply the result of playing with Jake Gardiner.

Carrick is undersized, and while he largely makes up for this with his strength and grit, his short reach presents a challenge when guarding the line or stick-checking the puck away. As a result, it is difficult to see him developing into a true shutdown defenceman, and his upside is a tad limited.

He owns a hard slap shot and is adept at firing a quick and accurate breakout pass. His scoring numbers look bound to improve, and his ability to generate clean zone exits allows Toronto’s forwards to spend more time in the offensive end. All in all, he owns relatively valuable skillset, but he does not carry the same degree of potential impact as the players in my top five.

Kevin summarises what most fans are thinking. Even those who ranked him slightly higher didn't necessarily do that because of Carrick's ability or potential. Arvind, for example, ranked him sixth, yet calls him a depth defenceman:

It’s more a function of me being comparatively low on Connor Brown. Essentially, Brown vs. Carrick to me came down to “decent depth defenceman” vs. “decent depth forward.” The former won, because he’s a little younger and defencemen are a little harder to find, especially in the Leafs’ system.

However, there are reasons to believe you are all wrong. Yes, that includes you specifically.

NHL Carrick

As I analysed in a piece earlier this month, Carrick greatly benefitted from playing with Gardiner. But, Gardiner might have had an equally large negative impact on him.

Gardiner plays a rather aggressive game offensively, pinching often and carrying the puck all the way behind the goal line when the chance is there. While that is part of the Leafs' team style—overwhelming opponents with movement and rotation in the offensive zone—it limited what Carrick could do. When Gardiner takes the puck behind the net or into the slot to get a shot off, Carrick won't pinch in to support him. Rather, he'll stay back and make sure he'll be ready for a counter attack.

Knowing Gardiner's tendencies, or perhaps thanks to coaching instructions, Carrick didn't take many risks with the puck either. Instead of moving in toward the net and shortening the zone, Carrick frequently fired pucks at the net from low-danger positions.

How do we know he hasn't been doing this because he's a bad player? Because he's proven he knows better in other leagues, and proven he can provide offence whenever he did take some more risks.

AHL Carrick

AHL Carrick was like a whole different person. Sure, one could argue that the AHL is a much weaker league and that scoring is a lot easier there, but that's not the only reason. Both with the Hershey Bears and the Toronto Marlies, Carrick had a lot more freedom to develop the offensive side of his game—and he did.

The sequence above looks like nothing special. But this goal for the Bears is exactly what Carrick hasn't been doing for the Leafs, despite clearly being capable. He starts out in the far corner of the offensive zone, just like in the earlier sequence from an NHL game against the Boston Bruins. But instead of shooting from far out at a bad angle, like he did in the NHL, AHL Carrick has the freedom, skill, and confidence to move the puck to the middle and toward the net before ripping a slap shot past the goaltender.

Here's another one.

Again, Carrick receives the puck in the corner near the blue line. This time, he even gets pressured quickly, like he would be in the NHL. Yet, instead of dumping the puck deep or taking a bad shot, he plays a pass to his teammate, gets open to get it back, and tucks it home with a quick release that leaves the goalie no time to react.

Still not convinced? Don't worry, there's more.

Here, the Marlies move into the offensive zone with a controlled entry, but the first pass into the slot is denied. Carrick finds himself uncovered on the weak side, gets open, and gets Toronto the lead. There are two opponents between Carrick and the passer, who could intercept the puck and start an immediate counter attack with Carrick buried deep in the offensive zone. Yet, he takes the risk and gets rewarded—at a tied score in a playoff game seven.

To cap things off, here's a fun one.

When given the chance, Carrick has the speed to join a two-on-one and the hands to dangle around the goalie for a beautiful finish.

The present

Carrick has what it takes—he just needs the freedom and confidence to blossom into the two-way player he can be. But how can he get that?

Pairing him with new free-agent acquisition Ron Hainsey might have been a good step in the right direction. Hainsey is an experienced shutdown defender who could give Carrick the freedom he needs. But even if he builds the third pairing with Martin Marincin, which is expected, Carrick will likely be relied on as the player who can jump in on the attack and play a two-way game similar to Gardiner's.

And if that happens, watch out for a heavy increase in production.