ANAHEIM, Calif. — The path to stardom for Leo Carlsson will have its twists and turns. It is rarely a straight line for even the highest of draft picks. Part of the growth and development into the franchise player the Anaheim Ducks are confident he’ll be lies in playing against the game’s superstars.
To be a top-flight No. 1 center in the NHL means matching up against the best from time to time, and Carlson got his first look at the best in Connor McDavid as the Edmonton Oilers paid a visit Friday night. The Ducks lost badly in two other meetings against McDavid and the Oilers earlier this season, but Carlsson didn’t play in either as he missed the first due to the team’s load management plan with him and the second as a result of being sidelined with a sprained MCL.
This was his indoctrination to this otherworldly talent, a three-time league MVP and five-time scoring champion. Challenge accepted.
“He’s super fast obviously,” Carlsson said. “(Felt) faster when I play against him. I didn’t play against him too much in the (defensive) zone, so I didn’t really feel that. But just so fast. Transitions and he’s so good with the puck. Fun time playing against him.”
As usual, McDavid left his imprint. Evander Kane got a hat trick as he helped the Oilers forge a tie twice and finished off their 5-3 comeback win with an empty-net goal for the blistering team’s 17th win in 18 games. But it was McDavid who powered the third-period rally, first with a dash across the ice to feed Zach Hyman for a tap-in and then a seam pass through the Ducks’ penalty kill to Leon Draisaitl for a power-play strike and Edmonton’s first lead.
The Ducks hope there will be a day when Carlsson leaves that kind of impact every night. But this was no quiet evening for the 19-year-old. It was an eventful one for the rookie, who was making play after play in the first two periods.
Ryan Strome was often the beneficiary of the big center’s work. On three occasions, Carlsson created golden chances for his veteran linemate. There was a breakaway that Strome got against Oilers goalie Calvin Pickard in the first period and an odd-man rush chance in the second that Pickard also stopped.
“I thought we played a good game.”
Leo Carlsson spoke on his play and the game overall. pic.twitter.com/GOC4PKD4fE
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) February 10, 2024
Finally, at about the game’s halfway point, Strome was the recipient of a bang-bang pass from Carlsson after Adam Henrique’s successful forecheck. His tuck around Pickard’s outstretched left leg gave Anaheim a 2-1 lead. “I told him third time’s the charm,” Strome said.
Carlsson described the play as one that was broken, and he saw “some guy” in a black jersey and “just kind of basically whacked it in there and he was all alone.” But he acknowledged that he knew it was Strome who was trailing behind as the Oilers were about to vacate the defensive zone but failed to get the puck past Henrique. It was also an example of how quickly Carlsson processes the game as the action unfolds.
“There’s certain guys that you play hockey with that just have a natural instinct to kind of know where guys are going to be,” Strome said. “I know that the skill players, they sometimes out of the corner of their eye only got to see the color of the (jersey) in the corner. He said he saw me kind of hanging below the coverage and he just banged one down to me. He made a great play.
“I missed the breakaway. He made a little play on the wall. And then the two-on-one, he made a good play. Nice to bury one because when you get passes like that, you want to make the most of it. He’s a hell of a player. To see the confidence of a young kid and the way he can play, can skate and can change the game — to see it up close every day is amazing.”
It is the presence of mind that Carlsson naturally has — the hockey IQ that Anaheim general manager Pat Verbeek raved about when he took him No. 2 after Connor Bedard — that leaves his teammates giving him the highest of praise.
Take the final game before the All-Star break against San Jose. Trailing 2-1 with John Gibson pulled for an extra attacker as the game neared its final minute of regulation play, Cam Fowler took a shot from the point that got through to Sharks goalie Kaapo Kähkönen. Henrique went after the rebound but was denied by San Jose defenseman Jan Rutta in the slot. But before Rutta could make another play, Carlsson spotted the bouncing puck and slid it over to Troy Terry for the winger to tie the game.
The Ducks would win in overtime on Frank Vatrano’s score and subsequent toss of his stick into the Honda Center crowd. That moment doesn’t happen if Carlsson doesn’t see the puck and give Terry a deft touch pass.
“It was an incredible play,” Terry said. “Playing in just a smaller market, those (are) little things that people maybe don’t realize how skillful they are. Just how incredibly talented he is. And I think that was kind of just one of those little plays that you might not even — some people might kind of breeze by and not even notice.
“It was truly an incredible pass just to be able to pull the puck out of 100 skates in front of the net and know a guy’s on the backside there was pretty impressive.”
The lone assist on a night when Carlsson should have had at least two or three gave him 20 points in 32 games. He is playing every night as The Leo Plan is a thing of the past and maybe he can squeeze his way back into the Calder Trophy discussion with a huge final two months. He also holds himself to a high standard, taking some fault for the tripping penalty he took which led to Draisaitl’s 3-3 tiebreaker.
Ducks coach Greg Cronin is holding him to the same lofty standard. He felt Carlsson could have made more plays than he did given how much he had the puck in his 16 minutes, 53 seconds of ice time. But he liked the fast pace at which his prized teenager played. As to how he was deployed Friday, Cronin put Carlsson on the ice more against Draisaitl’s line than McDavid and his wingers.
“I’m not trying to strategize when he should and shouldn’t go,” Cronin said. “It has nothing to do with whether he’s ready for it or not. Honestly, most of the time I do it based upon faceoff percentages, particularly in the D-zone. If Leo’s struggling on faceoffs, especially on that dot to the goalie’s right, I’ll put Sam (Carrick) there because he’s a righty and usually has a high-percentage win on those dots.
“Eight-day break. Four lines. Just got to roll four lines and play. Get into a rhythm where you’re on your toes. There was really no strategy with regard to putting Leo against Draisaitl or McDavid.”
In three meetings over November and December, Carlsson did get to go against Nathan MacKinnon — one of the favorites to win the Hart Trophy. With Cronin having the last line change for the one home game against Colorado, he largely kept Carlsson away from MacKinnon. But in the two games in Denver, Carlsson often got matched up against the Avs’ superstar.
What was the difference between MacKinnon and McDavid? “I feel like Nathan has more power in his skating,” Carlsson said. “Just power basically. And McDavid is more side-to-side. Fast skill.”
Ultimately, this was a learning experience for him against the best. And the Ducks believe it will serve him well in the long run.
“Everyone in our sport, I think, compares themselves (to those) that are in their echelon,” Strome said. “Whether it’s your draft year, skill-wise or salary-wise. Everyone’s human nature is to compare themselves to other guys. As a young guy, you want him to compare himself against those guys. You want him to go up against those guys.”
Said Carlsson: “I feel like I play good against them. If I just work hard in the next few years, I can for sure get to that level.”
Carlsson and Isac Lundestrom attended the Los Angeles Clippers’ game Wednesday against New Orleans. Carlsson shot a few jump shots — making a handful — and swapped personalized jerseys with NBA star Paul George. “I went like 3-for-14 or something from 3,” Carlsson said. “It was hard. Further than you think. I thought I was an OK hooper. No, it was tough for sure.”
The autographed blue jersey with George’s name and No. 13 on the back sits at Carlsson’s place in Orange County but will eventually make its way back to his home in Sweden. Sitting courtside was an experience. Making small talk with George was another.
With a smile, Carlsson said, “He has no idea who I am obviously, so it was kind of fun just to meet and talk to him basically.”
It is going to take a little time, but the good-natured, massively talented Swede might be a recognized name as well.
(Photo: Nicole Vasquez / NHLI via Getty Images)