The last game the 23-year-old defenceman — now slotted seventh on coach Mike Babcock’s depth chart — played was Nov. 24 in Carolina. Toronto won that night and has gone 13-3-1 with Carrick in the lineup this season.
Babcock swapped Carrick out for veteran right shot Roman Polak the following night, anticipating a heavy tilt in a back-to-back against Washington, and has yet to go back to the younger, faster, smaller defenceman.
By escaping with victories over Pittsburgh and Edmonton, Toronto improved to 5-5-0 when dressing Polak, who earned a one-year contract though an extended tryout.
Look at plus/minus or virtually every possession metric, and Carrick holds an edge over Polak. Babcock simply trusts the rugged, fearless veteran more.
Polak is more prone to taking penalties, like the unnecessary cross-check he committed Sunday, but he does strike more fear around the hallowed dirty areas, and Babcock prefers Polak’s work on a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill that relies extensively on Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev.
Thus, Polak is averaging 15:23 in ice time when he’s dressed. Carrick is at 13:38.
“Polie’s a big, heavy guy. He plays safe and the coach plays him. That’s a big part of it, too,” Babcock said. “If you feel safe with a guy out on the ice and you’re willing to play him, the guy is more likely to play.”
Carrick is trying to stay upbeat in the face of demotion, but in an interview with Sportsnet this weekend, his frustration over what will be at least 18 days out of the lineup was palpable.
The defenceman said Babcock, as of the weekend, had not spoken to him about the switch. Carrick said a couple of teammates offered words of encouragement, but he’d like to keep those conversations in the room.
“I don’t think any player enjoys it. It’s certainly not why you play the game,” said Carrick after staying on the ice for extra practice Saturday in Pittsburgh. “You love to play and you love to be important to the team, but at the same time, we’ve got a strong group.”
The Leafs’ much publicized depth has been an exercise in patience for young wingers like Josh Leivo and Nikita Soshnikov and has resulted in unexpected, short-term benchings for veterans like Dominic Moore and Matt Martin.
The Carrick vs. Polak debate slots just behind William Nylander’s ice time and Auston Matthews’ wingers on the Leafs Twitter Outrage Meter. But these fringe roster battles require perspective: The club has stacked 20 victories in 31 outings.
“We put the players in, and if everything goes good and you keep playing good, you just keep playing,” Babcock explained last week when asked about his decision on third-pair D. “If not, you need to change and put [a different] guy in. If he does a good job, he’s in.
“Usually the coach isn’t that dumb,” Babcock added. “He plays the guys who are playing the best.”
Carrick becomes a restricted free agent on July 1 and is eligible for arbitration when his two-year, $1.5-million deal expires.
So, how does he believe he can claw back into the lineup?
“You try to physically maintain a game that is above the position of it,” said Carrick, humbled if not hurt. “Practice good. Keep a good attitude.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs have been around long before Connor Carrick and will be around a long time after him. There’s something special about being in the NHL. You’re never too good to understand that lesson.”