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At age 18, Bobby Carpenter is a target on ice skates, a marked man in the NHL. As a high school sophomore, he led St. John's Prep of Danvers, Mass. to a 21-2 record and its first state hockey title. Yes, as a sophomore. Now, three years later, he's trying to lift the hapless Washington Capitals to respectability. Consider the enormous burden on his shoulders: He's a U.S. kid in a game dominated by fiercely provincial and occasionally violent Canadian men. In a wink, these guys can make your face what is called coyote ugly.
"So far nothing has fazed him," a teammate says. Carpenter has already been clutched, grabbed and hooked, not to mention slashed, smashed and speared. That's how old NHL hands try to distract promising rookies. "I've been in hundreds of rinks and nobody has run me out of one yet," says Carpenter. To stay in, he keeps his eyes open, his mouth shut and his fists and stick ready.
Last June, Carpenter was the No. 3 pick in the NHL draft, the highest any American-born player had ever been chosen. He is the youngest player in the league and the first to go directly from a U.S. high school to the NHL. What makes the leap so memorable is that the caliber of play in the fastest of U.S. high school leagues doesn't approach that of Canadian junior hockey, the training ground of the vast majority of NHL players. Even in U.S. hockey hotbeds, high school teams play only about 20 games a season; Canadian junior teams play as many as 100. "I'd heard about some high school kid who the scouts said was good enough to play in the NHL," says Washington Coach Gary Green. "I said I'd believe it when I see it." Green has seen. Green believes.
Right off at Washington's training camp, Carpenter so impressed Green and Caps General Manager Max McNab that they assigned him to center a line with Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner, two of the team's highest-scoring forwards. In five exhibition games in Sweden and Finland, Carpenter scored a total of five goals. After his first six regular-season games, he had three goals and three assists, though over the next two weeks he had only four assists as Washington lost all six of its games.
According to McNab, all Carpenter needs is experience. In high school he owned the puck, so he never had to worry much about positioning. Now he must work on moving without the puck, as well as on the art of defense. He already shoots bullets and is tremendously quick. "He'll carry the puck through heavy traffic and yet make something happen because he has such quick hands," says McNab. "There's something magic in his wrists. All superior players have magical wrists. They can pull pucks away or fire shots that average players cannot. Bobby's wrists are as quick as I've ever seen."
Because a center is usually the quarterback of a hockey team, statistics alone often fail to reflect his worth. When evaluating a center, forget goal-scoring totals and focus on such subtleties as winning face-offs and playmaking. Carpenter excels at both. Against Buffalo in the first game of the season, he won the opening face-off. shed a defenseman to get at the puck, which was loose at mid-ice, and poked a perfect pass to Walter flying down the right side. Walter scored on the breakaway, and in just 12 seconds as a pro, Carpenter had his first assist.
Ten nights later, against Buffalo again, the Caps gave up a horrendous goal at 19:58 of the opening period to fall behind 2-0. Next period, first shift, Carpenter took the puck the length of the ice, beat two Sabres and scored. With one rush he had brought Washington back into the game. More important was the lift his goal gave the Capitals' crowd. One moment the fans were booing, the next they were cheering. "Great athletes seem to have some God-given gift by which they make their greatest plays at the most timely moments," McNab says. "I think Bobby has that gift."
Promising as he is, though, Carpenter very likely would be riding the bench were he playing for the Islanders or some other top team. But the Capitals need him. They are in their eighth season and have yet to make the playoffs. As of Sunday, their record was 1-11, the poorest in hockey.
Before a recent game against the Islanders, Green shook up his lines, dropping Carpenter to No. 3 center between Bengt Gustafsson and Roland Stoltz. Since then he has centered four other lines. The Caps' gravest shortcoming this season has been defending their net. One reason is that the centers—Carpenter especially—have failed to come back deep enough to help the defensemen. "Bobby's got to learn two-way hockey," says Green, "but he certainly has the tools to play defense."
At 6'1", 185 pounds—and still growing—Carpenter also has the tools to protect himself. In a preseason game against Pittsburgh, rookie Steve Gatzos took a run at Carpenter. Bobby dropped his gloves and pumped five right-hands into the surprised Gatzos' face.