Since being selected in the fifth round (137th overall) of the 2012 Entry Draft, Connor Carrick has exceeded expectations at nearly every turn, ascending from the OHL to the NHL in a fashion that can best be described as meteoric. To wit, he's the only defenseman taken after the first round in the last three drafts who has played at least nine games in the League this season, and is one of just eight blueliners from his draft class who have dressed for an NHL game this year... and the other seven were all taken among the top 22 picks (five in the top ten).
In the span of a few months, Carrick went from Caps' training camp surprise, to the opening night roster, to the AHL and then off to Sweden for the World Junior Championship and back to the AHL before returning to Washington in mid-January for an every-night gig in the Caps' third defensive pairing that has seen him top 19 minutes of ice time in each of his last three games.
All of that is mighty impressive, of course, for a kid (and he is very much that) who won't turn 20 until the last day of the regular season.
What's been somewhat less impressive, unfortunately, is Carrick's actual play. To be sure, growing pains are to be expected, mistakes are going to happen. Heck, you still see far more of them from the team's "veteran" rearguards than you'd thought you'd see at this point. But Carrick has been routinely over-matched at the NHL level, and it's hurting the team.
Over the 17 games that Carrick has played in the NHL in 2013-14, no Caps skater has been on the ice for more goals-against than Carrick's 20 (Karl Alzner and, surprisingly, Eric Fehr are tied), and this despite being seventh among the team's defenders in average time on ice and relatively minimal penalty-killing responsibilities. In fact, his goals-against/20 at five-on-five is worst on the team and sixth-worst among defensemen in the League (minimum 200 minutes), and it's a similar story (in a tiny sample) on the kill. His possession numbers aren't quite as bad (174th out of 226 qualifying blueliners), but before you blame his most frequent partner, John Erskine (who has struggled mightily in his own right), note that Carrick actually has a positive Corsi ratio with Erskine (50.9%), but a woeful 38.6% mark without him... and he's not exactly playing brutally difficult minutes.
At the other end of the ice, the Caps are scoring at a lower rate with Carrick on the ice at five-on-five than with any other defenseman (though it's worth noting that his two helpers in Sunday's win over Detroit were terrific), and the result is that Carrick is one of just six NHL defensemen whose team has yielded more than 70% of the five-on-five goals scored with him on the ice. That's not good.
All of that brings us to the part in the analysis where we note that his partner(s) and deployment are contributing factors (and they are), and that he has been the victim of both low on-ice shooting and save percentages (he has been) - 5.6% and 89.2%, respectively. But let's not chalk up that brutal 947 PDO entirely to luck, not when Carrick is out there with Erskine and the duo continues to make soul-crushing mistakes. To that end, Erskine's have been well-documented, but let's take a look at some of Carrick's defensive shortcomings. And while they may seem cherry-picked, these are representative of the types of mistakes he's making routinely. First up, the "physically outmatched":
Carrick essentially gets posted up inside and is unable to do much of anything to defense the shot, the rebound, or the follow-up. It's not surprising to see a defenseman who is (perhaps generously) listed at 5-11, 185 get worked over in front of the net and on the boards, but it's certainly not helping matters. Perhaps if Carrick were to challenge earlier before it gets to that point, he'd have more success... which brings us to our second grouping, "bad decision-making":
At any point here does Carrick look like he knows what he's supposed to be doing? We can probably apportion some of the blame here to Calle Johansson and Adam Oates, but far too often Carrick appears lost in his own zone (and, to be sure, he isn't the only Caps' rearguard of whom this can be said). Here's another example. And another. Part of what's leading to these poor decisions is probably fear of being beaten to the outside (or at all), which in many cases is resulting in Carrick backing in too much and stepping up to challenge too little, which brings us to our third grouping - "lack of confidence":
Once again, we'll put some blame on the coaching staff - the way the team's defense, as a group, backs in rather than challenging puck carriers near the blueline has to be by design. But go back and look at that first goal above for another example of Carrick backing in and not challenging. Here's another one on which Carrick probably could have been a bit more aggressive and short-circuited a chance before his teammates had a chance to fire up the circus.
Of note, all of the examples above come from the last four games, a span over which only Alex Ovechkin has (somewhat famously) been on the ice for more Caps goals-against. That's a lot of low-lights for such a small sample. And there's no easy solution to them, especially when some of them beg for a more aggressive approach, while others caution against bad reads and over-committment. We've seen similar learning curves in the past, most recently with Dmitry Orlov (with whom Oates has had seemingly less patience than Carrick this season, for reasons that aren't immediately obvious), and if all of these adjustments simply come with the territory, perhaps the Caps shouldn't be using the NHL as a developmental league.
The bottom line here is that Connor Carrick is learning on the job, and it's costing the Caps. Ultimately, it might well cost them a playoff spot, which is troubling, especially since (unlike teammate Tom Wilson) the AHL is an option for Carrick at this point in his development. But for now the team seems to be willing to accept Carrick for what he is... which doesn't, right now, appear to be an NHL-caliber defenseman.
Hopefully it doesn't cost the team - or the player - too much.