DETROIT — Even with a wedding to throw and a three-island-hopping Hawaiian honeymoon to plan, the busy brain of Connor Carrick would keep circling back to that one thing all summer.
“I didn’t really take my mind off of hockey,” the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman-on-the-bubble told Sportsnet during a recent interview.
So, long after being eliminated in a playoff series he’d been scratched for, he’d flick on the TV and watch the Washington Capitals, the club that drafted and dealt him, battle a batch of misfits from Vegas for the Stanley Cup.
He’d see a little of himself in both those sides, and it would get him amped up, restless to go for a skate.
“[Vegas] had a whole team of guys looking for chances. They got them and were able to do really well. As a player, I was able to draw some inspiration off that,” Carrick explained.
“The Capitals, too: Michal Kempny was of no use in Chicago. They were pretty happy to get rid of him [at the trade deadline], and he took off in Washington.
“There’s enough success stories to keep positive in this game.”
Carrick, normally a glass-half-full type, will need to channel that positivity in the coming hours after logging heavy but forgettable minutes in Saturday’s 5-1 pre-season loss to the Detroit Red Wings as a member of Toronto’s B squad.
Despite putting his work ethic before his skill, and gaining a cap-friendly, one-year contract for the coming season, Carrick is still searching for an NHL niche.
The routine this summer was to follow team skates and gym reps with a second solo skate, where he’d dive deep into his shot, or his positioning, or his stride. He’d compound that with persistent analysis. That busy mind.
“It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s something I’ve found really helps my game,” Carrick said. “Self-reflection has been a strong part of my game and helped me add over the years. I think if you have an awareness that day, you know what to throw at yourself to be your best. I think that’s an important skill.”
More so than summers past, Carrick drilled into why, what and how he wanted to ready himself for camp: evolve into a more sound defensive skater with a smarter plan.
“What I mean by that is, I found overcompensation in my game. Super active in the neutral zone. Very loopy. Trying to pick off every pass, every guy. I needed to make sure I don’t get scored on and stay in the lineup. It was a fear-based model,” he admitted.
“In terms of D-zone, too circular, too much spinning, not enough commanding neutral ice and being able to pick pucks off and get ’em back. This is my ice. You can go where you want but still staying tight to your check.”
As is the Babcock way, the Leafs coach was dropping a life lesson about another player entirely Saturday when he broadened his scope.
“In life, I believe things come at an earned basis. I don’t think you just give kids stuff; they’ve got to earn it,” Babcock preached. “That’s in all things. If they earn it, they appreciate it more, and they end up doing a better job.”
No one among the cluster of prospective Leafs defencemen hunting for the Nos. 6 and 7 spots earned the job, judging solely by the Maple Leafs eight exhibition games — which, paradoxically, is both a tiny sample size and way too much sample size for a pre-season that dragged on till its merciful demise in Motown.
And the seventh defenceman will be one of Carrick, Calle Rosen (waivers exempt), or Justin Holl — all of whom are on light contracts, all of whom could be called back up mid-season as anyone outside the top four will start running on a short leash, and none of whom have grabbed hold of Babcock’s trust in the D-zone and on the penalty kill.
Just because the league is installing a hard deadline for roster submissions at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday doesn’t mean the tryouts for the hazy fringes of Toronto’s lineup will cease.
“If you remember, Roman Polak was signed during the season last year,” Carrick said. “My goal has been to elevate my role on this team and grab some more of the pie, so I can make this team better and push the guys that have it and make sure they’re not taking it for granted. Hopefully I’m able to.”
There’s accuracy to the buzz that the Leafs are shopping righty Carrick, the 24-year-old who was out-battled for a spot in the lineup by off-the-glass-and-out Polak last time the playoffs rolled around.
“We have to talk about what we’re going to do with our roster, and we will do that prior to the game and after the game, like we’ve been doing every day,” Babcock said Saturday before chartering to his old stomping grounds. “I don’t know when the announcement is, but we’ll know what’s going on by the end of the day, I would assume.”
Watch that waiver wire Sunday and Monday, folks.
Two of three backup goaltenders — Curtis McElhinney, Garret Sparks, and Calvin Pickard — need to pass through as well, and there’s no guarantee they will. (As long as William Nylander remains jobless, a temporary bonus spot will be open.)
“I don’t really know where the organization is at in terms of their decision,” said McElhinney, 35, the starter and finisher in Saturday’s defeat. “I’ve been around for a little while, so I’ve played a bit, and my skin has got pretty thick over the years.”
Carrick may only be 167 games into his big-league life, but he too is stiffening his skin.
Regarding the fact Babcock hasn’t given him much feedback over the past couple weeks, he reasoned, “I’m not sure there is a ton to talk about.”
Exceedingly generous with his own time, there is concern Carrick’s may be running out in Toronto.
“I don’t think there’s really any one time where you can say, ‘I’ve made it.’ That’s not a thing in our game,” he told us during that longer chat at camp.
“Success is too fleeting. Confidence is too hard to earn. You have to stay with it every day. It’s a beautiful sport we’re in — how honest it keeps you.”
Indeed, there is beauty in honesty. But, boy, can it pack a lot of pain.