- Rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo is playing well beyond his years for the Boston Bruins.
BOSTON – Under the late-night quiet of his hotel bed, before dozing off in some new NHL city, defenseman Brandon Carlo budgets room for personal reflection. Between skating on the Boston Bruins’ first pair, shutting down opposing top lines, and figuring out this whole living-on your-own, being-an-adult business, stocktaking time is otherwise scarce. “It’s about each thing I’m fortunate enough to have, each experience we go through,” Carlo says. “The other day we played the Florida Panthers, and there’s a guy on that team who’s twice my age and in the league before I was even born. Stuff like that.”
Thirty games into his first full professional season, 20 years old as of two days after Thanksgiving, there has already been plenty of Stuff Like That. Entering training camp, only eight minor-league appearances under his belt after leaving the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, Carlo had set what he deemed to be lofty goals: “Make the team, and prove I could play in this league.” When that actually happened, falling asleep initially proved difficult – “I was just so excited to be in that position,” he says” – but big-picture thrills have since dovetailed into steadfast routines.
Through Monday, with Boston tied for second in the Atlantic Division, Carlo has averaged 22:30 per game, more than any rookie league-wide, and is the only one topping both 19:00 at even strength and 3:00 shorthanded. He’s enjoyed the universal surrealism of facing 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, yes, but also lists lining up for the first time against the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and his hometown Colorado Avalanche as moments that made the bedside memory bank. “It’s pretty crazy,” Carlo says, glancing around the Bruins’ locker room and laughing at the proof. “I couldn’t have imagined it going any better at this point.”
Few did, though in hindsight it seems obvious. Listed at 6 feet, 5 inches and a sleek 203 pounds, Carlo combines his raw strength, fluid skating and patient approach to counter opposing forecheckers, often needing little more than inside position or a quick stick flick to gain possession. Think St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo or Washington’s Matt Niskanen, fellow soft-spoken, right-shots whose point totals belie their abilities to retrieve pucks under pressure and quickly move them up the ice, a must in today’s transition game.
No wonder fellow Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, when asked what has impressed him most about Carlo, replies, “His ability to rebound from mistakes. He’s tremendous mentally.” Or that Parker Wotherspoon, his partner in Tri-City, says, "I can’t remember Carls coming into the room with a bad attitude, or having a s---y day. And no wonder Carlo, when asked about defending odd-man rushes, surprisingly calls it, “probably the aspect of my game that I love the most.”
He elaborates: “When I was younger, guys would get so pissed at me, because my stick was so good. I’d just poke the puck away and they’d fly right by and I always found that so much fun, just to piss those guys off, know I have that talent and that way to beat them in a 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 all the time. I love that feeling of beating a guy who’s supposedly the top guy on the other team, just getting the puck away from him and winning that battle, I take a lot of pride in that.”
Carlo was raised in Colorado Springs, one of four and the youngest by five years. “Can’t you ever let your brother win?” Angie Carlo would often ask her three oldest children after another game of rug hockey in the living room or inline in the cul-de-sac. “Nope,” came the usual reply. In other words, young Brandon grew up fast.
By age 14, Carlo began playing up for the 16-and-under Colorado Thunderbirds, a club based out of Denver. This meant hour-long commutes with Angie, five days each week for four straight years. At first, Brandon might crank up the music in his headphones or whip out his homework, occupied by teenage tendencies. “But there were definitely times we’d just talk about life,” he says. “It was nice, because no matter what day I was going through, a good or bad one, I always had her there, just like a therapist for me. Same thing for her. She could talk to me about the struggles in her day. That was really cool to continue to build that relationship with her.”
A self-branded “mama’s boy,” Carlo returned home to an (ahem) avalanche of family support in mid-November, when the Bruins faced Colorado at Pepsi Center. More than 100 well-wishers passed through the Carlos’ private suite that night, and when Brandon finally entered postgame – having skated a steady 20:37 in a 2-0 win – the room erupted in cheers. “I was praying to God we didn’t lose that game, because I know they would’ve done the same thing,” he says, smiling. “They’re all just really hectic and loud and they’d be yelling the whole time. My family’s definitely not shy and a spirited bunch.”
Carlo places himself in more laid-back territory. On the road he and roommate Austin Czarnik, another Bruins rookie, pass the time with “mainly just TV.” His current to-do list includes furnishing his new apartment, after moving out from a Residence Inn outside Boston, and “getting all the electricity and all that s--- done.” During that trip road back home, Carlo made sure to hit up the local spots he missed while living out east. “Just the average places,” he says. “Like Qdoba.” He sports two simple tattoos on his thick arms. One lists his parents’ birthdays in roman numerals; the other is a phrase etched into a ring his mother bought a decade ago – LIVE BY FAITH NOT BY SIGHT.
To him, the credo symbolizes steadiness. Trust the process, eyes forward. This gets reinforced daily in Boston, over lunch at the rink with Chara. “He taught me to never get too high, never get too low,” Carlo says of the Bruins captain, who’s almost 20 years older than his new defensive partner and four inches taller. “When he was breaking into the league, guys weren’t like that. Rookies were rookies. Now it’s a lot different. I’m fortunate to have guys like that who are willing to help me.
“Hearing his experience, because he’s been in the league for so long, he was reflecting about when he was in my shoes…I’ve heard it from so many guys, you don’t want to wish anything away, because everything goes by so fast. It’s year one, then in the blink of an eye it’s Year 8. I’m not trying to take that lightly at all. I want to enjoy this experience and enjoy this ride and hope I get to that point of being 10 years down the road and still in the league. That’s something he’s expressed to me, how fast it goes, and to never take it for granted. It’s the best time in all of our lives. I’m just happy to be here.”
Growing pains are still inevitable, especially as Carlo continues touring around the league for the first time. Twenty-four seconds into Boston’s game in Washington on Dec. 7, Capitals forward Justin Williams swept in front of the Bruins’ net, angling his stick over Carlo and, in a flash, deflecting the puck for a first-shift goal. Shortly thereafter, Carlo found himself bumped down the depth chart, replaced beside Chara by Adam McQuaid and skating with Kevan Millar for the rest of a 4-3 overtime loss. “I could sense that we got a young D who was a little nervous,” coach Claude Julien explained later, “so I wasn’t going to wait a little longer.”
The next night, at home on a back-to-back with little sleep and hence little time for reflection, Carlo was on the ice for three of Colorado’s four goals. This included John Mitchell’s unassisted game-winner, which came after Carlo tried rimming the puck into the offensive zone and struck Mitchell at the blue line instead, sparking an uncontested breakaway.
“Trying to stay positive,” Carlo said after. “Tough week, for sure. I couldn’t say that things have gone so good for me the past couple days...At the same time you can’t be nervous or scared in this league anymore after almost 30 games. You’ve got to settle yourself in, learn from mistakes and move on from that.”
He motions to his right arm. See the tattoo? Live by faith, remember?