As the NHL season opens up Tuesday night, there is plenty to feel good about. Hockey is back, after all. However, there may be one story Tuesday that stands out above the rest as the new season dawns.
Fifth-round draft picks have a hard time making the NHL in general. Cracking an NHL lineup a year after getting picked so late? Near unheard of. However, when the Washington Capitals line up against the Blackhawks Tuesday night in Chicago, 19-year-old rookie defenseman Connor Carrick will be on the ice.
Carrick, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound defenseman, was the 137th overall selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by Washington.
Most draft picks after the second or third round are veritable crap shoots. Teams simply do the best they can with the information the scouts have to make those selections and hope at least one or two of those players make the NHL roster someday. Then throw in the general rule that defensemen take longer to develop and you've got some awfully long odds for a 19-year-old fifth-rounder making the big club.
However, Carrick's performance during Capitals training camp hinted that he might not only pan out, but make the opening-night roster. It also doesn't hurt that Carrick signed a cap-friendly entry-level contract last week with an annual hit of $636,667 according to Cap Geek.
The lower salary cap makes the cheaper entry-level deals a little more useful to teams looking to stay compliant. That's probably a big reason there are so many young players making it to the league this year, while many established veterans remain waiting by a phone.
But you can't just be cheap labor to make it to the NHL, you have to be able to play. Carrick certainly can. He put up 44 points in 68 games for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League last year after spending two seasons at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., which has been an NHL prospect factory for years.
There are many things that makes Carrick's rather rapid ascent to hockey's highest level so remarkable, but his situation during his first draft-eligible season stands out.
In that all-important draft year Carrick was only a third-pairing defenseman for the U.S. National Under-18 Team. In his defense, he was playing alongside three first-round draft picks, Seth Jones (No. 4 to Nashville in 2013), Jacob Trouba (No. 9 to Winnipeg in 2012) and Brady Skjei (No. 28 to New York in 2012). The D corps also included Calgary second-rounder Patrick Sieloff and Boston Bruins third-round pick Matthew Grzelcyk.
All of those players were higher draft choices than Carrick, but perhaps it was because of his spot on the depth chart that Carrick's talents went a bit overshadowed. Even so, to go from third-pairing defenseman at the U18 level to an NHL opening-night lineup with only one season in between is rather ridiculous.
It probably didn't hurt Carrick's cause that he was playing for Plymouth last season, which was also the junior club of Capitals 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson, who will also suit up for Washington Tuesday night. While keeping a watchful eye on Wilson, the Capitals brass probably saw enough of Carrick to know that his potential was trending up enough to at the very least get him to the American Hockey League this year.
Then Carrick put together a rather remarkable preseason. He posted five points in five appearances with the Capitals, including a two-assist night in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers, setting up Alex Ovechkin for both.
He at least proved capable of filling some light minutes and giving the Capitals an affordable option to shore up blue line depth.
The big question now is can Carrick stick around and be a regular? That's something that even he doesn't know. As he told the Washington Times:
“I don't know [if he'll stick with the Caps],” he said. "I would know better if I played in actual NHL games. Every game I've played in so far, there's an asterisk. It is a preseason game. Their best players aren't going full tilt or they didn't have their full lineup.
“Obviously, if I was asked to make the jump I'd feel ready. The players out here are really good. Do I think I can compete with them? Yeah, I do. I like my skills, I like my tools. At the same time, I respect them. They're great players and they've had success at a level I haven't had.”
Since Carrick was drafted out of the NTDP and not a Canadian Hockey League team, he is not subject to the rules that bind teams to sending players 19 or younger back to junior hockey. If he isn't ready for a regular role with the Capitals, they can send him to Hershey in the AHL for extra pro seasoning.
What makes Tuesday night extra special for Carrick, however, is that he hails from Orland Park, Ill., a nearby southwestern suburb of Chicago. While Illinois has seen plenty of its native sons make it to the NHL, most are from the more affluent northern 'burbs.
With the Caps opening up against the Blackhawks, Carrick will make his NHL debut in what amounts to his hometown, against the team he grew up rooting for. It doesn't get much better than that. As Carrick put it:
My first NHL game tonight will be played against the Chicago Blackhawks. Cant think of a moment or event in my life that tops this #GoCaps— Connor Carrick (@connorcarrick) October 1, 2013
He'll also be lining up across the ice from a similar fifth-round success story. Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw was taken with the 139th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, his third and final year of eligibility. He cracked the Blackhawks lineup the very next season. Shaw had the slight benefit that he was a year older at the time, but making it from the fifth-round to an NHL ice sheet in such a short span is mystifying.
Even if Carrick doesn't have the goods to stick with the Capitals all season, it takes very little away from what is a truly rare accomplishment. The 19-year-old rearguard is living proof that the number next to your name on a draft board is only that, a number.