Don’t be misled by the title- Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo has been anything but “bad” in the first quarter of his introduction to the NHL. We use the word “bad” in the best sense to describe Carlo as a player who has rapidly carved a niche for himself with the B’s, infusing the blue line with the kind of shutdown consistency that was so lacking a year ago.
The Colorado Springs-area native and 37th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is the youngest defenseman to break into the NHL full-time alongside a future Hall of Fame partner since 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton arrived at the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
Prior to that, it was 18-year-old Kyle McLaren, Boston’s top choice in 1995 out of the WHL’s Tacoma (now Kelowna) Rockets, who marked the last time a teen defenseman made the big time right away (excepting Jonathan Girard’s) cups of coffee with the Bruins in the late 90’s)- skating with B’s legend Ray Bourque during the 95-96 NHL campaign. Carlo is more of a throwback to McLaren than Hamilton, though- Boston’s top pick in 2011 was pretty sheltered with his minutes as a rookie on a veteran team that would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in June of 2013, whereas Carlo has consistently played top pair minutes with Zdeno Chara and demonstrated that he has the broad shoulders to handle it.
This is not to denigrate Hamilton, but he and Carlo are polar opposites when it comes to playing style, and therefore- the newest face of Boston’s youth movement has found himself better able to establish a level of trust and understanding with Claude Julien and Boston assistant Bruce “Butch” Cassidy right out of the gate. It took Hamilton longer to do that, and while he’s likely to remain a superior offensive player going forward, Carlo is the kind of defender who could enjoy a longer and more stable NHL career because of how capable and effective he brings to the table in terms of style and execution. Remember- the position is called DEFENSEman, in that respect, Carlo is already establishing himself as a top option at age 20.
Here’s a breakdown of Carlo’s play- the good and not-as-good as we see it and what we might expect going forward.
At 6-foot-5 and with long limbs that give Carlo the stick reach of an even taller (say 6-6 maybe 6-7) player, he’s on the high end of the scale. He’s still a bit lean and not all that heavy for our liking, but as someone who just turned 20 and began the NHL season at age 19, he still has time and room to fill out his big frame, hovering around 200-205 pounds right now. That’s a big improvement from the 185-190 he was drafted at, but there’s more room for mass.
Carlo has a fluid, natural stride that is rare for one so tall. His skating mechanics are near-flawless as he digs his edges into the ice and generates a powerful push that gets him up and down the ice. The footwork and direction change are very good- in the open ice, he can join the rush and get back quickly in recovery. Where Carlo’s skating gets exposed is in his short-area burst, which is understandable for someone who is 6-5…when dealing with rapid stops/starts and changes in tempo, he lacks the ability to close or explode into puck carriers down low and in the corners, or get to loose pucks first when they are rimmed around the boards in his own end. Carlo’s size and mobility are his greatest strengths, but like any big man, the skating is limited- there’s an ideal size/skating ratio that allows smaller players to generate more pure speed and burst- Carlo doesn’t have that. But, unlike the stereotypical “pylon” or “turnstile” D of yesteryear, he’s far more fleet-of-foot and able to funnel opponents to the outside and away from high-danger areas, which is exactly what you want from a big shutdown defender. He’s also able to get back in puck retrieval as well. All in all- we figured the size/skating combo would get Carlo to the NHL, but how quickly he got here and established himself in Boston is the real story.
This Tri-City Americans pre-draft profile gives you an idea of the skating and what teams saw from him to help him land inside the top-40 selections:
Puck skills: B
He’s solid and confident when handling the puck. Carlo doesn’t have someone like Torey Krug’s mastery of the biscuit, but he’s above average in that he makes a crisp first pass and doesn’t handle it like a hand grenade in the face of an aggressive forecheck. He’s still learning to adjust to the speed and pace of the NHL game/figuring out how much time he has to get rid of pucks and how much zip he needs to use, but he’s got the hands to be above average here as he develops and gains big league experience. He’s a capable passer in the offensive zone, but not a particularly adept puck distributor who will pile up the assists.
Shot/Scoring: B+ (shot)/B- (scoring)
Carlo’s got a big, hard point blast and we’ve seen him drive it into tight spaces. His first career NHL goal is a prime example of that, and as he plays more and builds his confidence, we’ll likely see him use it more often and to better effect. Like most big guys, he probably needs to address his shot mechanics a bit- perhaps reducing the windup and getting it off faster. Carlo also needs to look at employing more variety in his arsenal- the wrist and snap shots to keep opponents guessing. He generates a lot of power on it, and the accuracy is something he’ll get better at as time goes on. Carlo is probably not ever going to be a big threat to score much more than 10-15 goals in a season, but in keeping his drives low and on net, he’ll generate assists when his teammates can get their sticks on them for deflected goals. Here’s his 1st goal…in fairness to some of the critiques of his offensive awareness in this post, Carlo does nice job of drifting to the middle of the circles to unload the shot:
Defensive hockey sense: A-
Carlo’s bread and butter. He seems to read the play well and is very good with his gaps already, instinctively keeping defenders away from clear paths to the net and disrupting clean zone entries. As a rookie, he’s going to be out of position and will make mistakes from time to time- his recent gaffe in the loss to Anaheim is an example of him turning the puck over in his own end when a higher-percentage play was there for him to be made. However, he understands the flow of the play and does not need a lot of positional coaching. As he gains experience, Carlo will be even harder to beat 1-on-1 and he’ll likely keep the plays safe and simple in his own end. He’s a willing shot-blocker who will sell out to keep pucks from getting to his goaltender. Carlo will probably evolve into a top penalty killer who becomes critical in keeping opposing power plays at bay because of his mobility, reach, defensive acumen and awareness.
Offensive hockey sense: C+
This is the one area that TSP has long felt is what will hold Carlo back from being a legitimate two-way defensive threat at the NHL level. Note- this is not the same as saying he won’t be effective, but what often separates the true, higher-end, exceptional defenders with the tools and talent to make a difference at both ends is in their creativity and how well they process the game offensively. Carlo is a solid defensive thinker, but his vision and creativity appears to be on a narrower spectrum in the offensive end. We’ve seen him put his head down and drive pucks to the net when passing lanes and teammates were open for a higher-percentage play. He’s good for about one pass or more, but doesn’t exploit the offensive flow much and would rather hang out by the point in many situations and drop bombs. This is not a bad thing for a defenseman, but it also means his production will likely be pretty modest. At his zenith, Chara was a 16-19 goal, 40-50-point defenseman who was dominant in his own end. We just don’t think Carlo has the same offensive upside that his current partner (now in the twilight of his playing days) did in his prime. If Carlo could approach 30 points in a single season, that would be a big win for the Bruins, but what you see is closer to what you’re probably going to get from him offensively, and he’s not a sure bet to be a top power play contributor. (Don’t be too hard on the Swiss goalie for whiffing here- Carlo’s shot hit a body in front and changed direction…)
Physical play: B-
Carlo is not a nasty, in-your-face hitter who intimidates. He understands body leverage and uses it well, especially along the walls when he can pin forwards in place during puck battles. But, he’s not going to make his bones by exploding into guys in the open ice and looking for the jarring, puck-separating hit, either. And let’s face it- the NHL is evolving away from that. There will always be a time and place for a big body check in hockey, but this isn’t something that Carlo excels at, nor do the Bruins need him to do it. As long as he can maintain an active stick to seal off lanes, deny screens by moving opposing forwards out of his goaltender’s sightlines, and use his size and strength to gain or maintain puck possession, that’s all the team needs him to do. He’s willing to drop the gloves to defend teammates but is not all that adept at the fisticuffs- you can tell his heart isn’t really in it, but he’s willing to make the sacrifice. Sure, who wouldn’t want their top shutdown guy to be a little more snarly, but Carlo is more valuable on the ice than in the penalty box for five minutes at a time. Here’s his first NHL fight with Arizona’s Brad Richardson:
Wow. For our money, this is the biggest factor in the impressive rise of Carlo this season. We can project players based on how big they are or how well they skate, hard they shoot the puck or how capable they pass or defend. What we have no ability to anticipate is how readily they will adapt to the huge leap in the quality of play they face at the NHL level. Carlo’s time in Providence last spring certainly helped him for what was to come in his first full rookie pro campaign, but there aren’t many who could see this coming, because until he started exhibiting the maturity and poise of a seasoned veteran in Boston, we had no idea of how he’d react to NHL forecheckers and the need to make decisions at light speed compared to what he was used to at Tri-City of the WHL. As a good friend and NHL scout once told me- you can’t coach someone to have ice water in their veins- they either bring that with them to the table or they don’t. For Carlo to be this refined and even-keeled at such a young age is saying a lot, because it’s novice/inexperienced D who get the (understandable) yips early in their NHL careers that often result in coaches and GMs keeping them away from the big club until they can develop that poise in the AHL and in other pro leagues. That Carlo essentially showed up on Day 1 and earned the trust and confidence of Julien and Co. is by far the biggest difference-maker of any of the assets the first player taken with two picks surrendered for Johnny Boychuk has given the Bruins this season.
Carlo’s not a rah-rah, in-your-face leader but he’s a good guy and solid citizen who is well-liked in the room. Part of building a team is recognizing chemistry right away and it is telling that the B’s began the year with a pair of inexperienced rookies in Carlo and Rob O’Gara. Much of that had to do with their natural size and mobility, but the maturity and character contributed to those decisions as well. O’Gara played three NHL games before going down to the AHL (and he’ll be back up at some point), but Carlo is here to stay. Much of it is because of his performance on the ice, but the Coloradan fit into the B’s dressing room dynamic seamlessly by earning the respect of the veterans with his humble, quiet demeanor. As Carlo gains experience and standing in Boston, he’ll likely be an ideal mentor to younger, talented defenders who will come in wide-eyed and taken aback by how different it is in the NHL. In Carlo’s case, he’ll be the rare guy who can look at the kids and say, “No sweat, rook- just let the game come to you and do what you do best,” and not be hypocritical in saying it. It’s what Carlo has been doing since his very first NHL shift. Here’s a video from the CHL on him moments after he was drafted:
Outlook: Top-3, top-pairing defensive anchor and team leader
We sought to pump the brakes on the Carlo hype because we didn’t want him to be seen as a savior in Boston, but with the improvement of the B’s defense this season 33 games in, you have to wonder just how much of an impact he has brought to steady the ship from what the blue line corps was a year ago. We still have more than a half a season left to play out, but he’s injected new life it seems into Chara by allowing Boston’s captain and future Hall of Famer to take on less of an active role and play more within his limitations on the back-nine of a stellar hockey career. There are sure to be bumps in the road for Carlo, but like McLaren 21 years ago, he’s got the size, skating and defensive ability to help the team right away and he’ll only get better. It would be tremendous if he evolved into a top-flight 2-way defenseman with points production to boot, but as things stand right now, that’s not the projection.
And, to be completely honest- the B’s are perfectly fine with what Carlo is and where he appears to be going. The kid’s a gamer, and he’s providing the first of what the team hopes will be some serious bang for the buck from the storied 2015 draft and Boston’s sizable class.
Disclaimer- the grades are subjective. Don’t have a lot of analytics or empirical evidence behind it, so if you disagree, that’s on you. Teacher’s privilege. 🙂