The Milwaukee Admirals haven’t been short of quality players drafted by the Nashville Predators over the years. You can just about view the Predators roster now and get the idea. The organization scouts and develops as well as any in the game. Even then there are very pleasant surprises to be seen up close at the American Hockey League level when seeing that process at its earliest stage.
When Colton Sissons and Juuse Saros made their arrival to Milwaukee it took some serious convincing that they were actually younger than they behaved. Both entered with such veteran-like poise and maturity from Day 1. Sissons was voted by his teammates as an alternate captain of the Admirals when he was 20-years old after playing one full-season of pro hockey. The next season his teammates would name him to be the Admirals captain. And Saros? Let’s just say that he has done so well that at 21-years old, having played 51 games in the AHL in just over one season, he is already cemented into the Predators roster behind the man he one day hopes to succeed, Pekka Rinne.
Alex Carrier doesn’t quite come across a wise old veteran in a 20-year old’s body when you chat with him or ask him how he is handling his first season as a pro hockey player. I don’t mean that as a negative, either. He speaks and acts in a way you’d imagine a kid would in realizing that he is living his dream of playing hockey for a living. His face lights up and he can’t really stop smiling about it. Considering how his first pro season has been going, who can blame him?
At this point in time, at the AHL All-Star break, I’d pen Carrier down as the best Admirals defenseman this season without much of a second thought. He is the top scoring defenseman on the team as well as the top scoring rookie. Yet, it isn’t the offensive stats that are the real standout element to his game. It is how he looks, moves, reads, and defends the position precisely as a Predators style defenseman is groomed to play the game and he is doing it from his arrival to the pro scene. Carrier can be the happy go lucky kid off the ice but his on-ice performance screams someone who looks like they’ve been developing in Milwaukee for several years already. He was 19-years old when this season started. He joined the Admirals at the end of last season to get a look around at the pro lifestyle, meet the coaches and some of the players he would play alongside this season, but he didn’t log a game like Jack Dougherty or Aaron Irving did. He sat out, practiced a bit, and processed his eventual destination.
I always hear from players how beneficial it is to arrive at the end of the season from juniors or college and get a look around – even if they don’t play. It checks so many boxes and answers so many questions before a players can cut loose and play. It isn’t a matter of hockey questions anywhere near as much as it is day-to-day life questions or learning the pro hockey lifestyle. There is far more time spent away from the game than in it but getting the happy medium measured between the is a key that can settle a mind down.
“That was great because, when I got here this year, I wasn’t as awkward. I knew everyone, I knew the coaches, I knew the staff, the players,” said Carrier of his time spent around the Admirals following his junior playing career coming to an end. “Even if I didn’t play a game I still felt more comfortable this year.”
Even with that all making for a smoother transition to living in Milwaukee and knowing your co-workers for an upcoming season – you still have to play. Going from the junior to the professional ranks is a test of not only precision in mechanics but doing it at a far higher rate of speed. Carrier didn’t get that pro debut out of his system with the Admirals at the end of last season. Heck, even his fellow Gatineau teammate in juniors Yakov Trenin was able to get involved during the Admirals playoff series and he’s back in juniors this season. Carrier was entering his first pro games of the 2016-17 season with a clean slate and relying upon the player that he already is. It was a slow and steady tip-toe progression but it didn’t paint a picture as large as what it would become.
Where Carrier’s season started to take leaps forward came in the form of the injury bug that was hitting the Predators early in the season. Matt Irwin was the veteran defenseman option for the Predators kept in reserve down with the Admirals and he was recalled for good far sooner than I’m sure the Predators could have anticipated. When Irwin went up it left lots of gaps open with the Admirals defensively. That is where Carrier was given an early opportunity to succeed and he did. His roles expanded on special teams and showed poise across the board. Carrier’s confidence seemed to grow with more experience and his natural ability started to shine with extended playing time. That confidence didn’t stay limited to him. It spread out to his teammates when he took to the ice and clearly the coaching staff for wanting him out there more and more. He’s been anchored as a first choice style defenseman on the power-play or penalty kill ever since.
With Irwin doing so incredibly well for the Predators the organization needed to go back to the well and get a new veteran defenseman for depth purposes. The Admirals made an AHL trade to acquire Adam Pardy from the Springfield Falcons in exchange for Eric Robinson, Teddy Doherty, and Brandon Whitney. Pardy and Carrier would be paired from Pardy’s Admirals debut and the two had immediate chemistry.
“I think our games complement each other,” said Pardy after his first weekend playing with the Admirals alongside Carrier. “He’s a good player. He is heads up and he sees plays. He makes a great first pass coming out of a zone. So, that’s what we need from both of us. And working together and playing solid positioning back there. We don’t want to get running around and he is good at that. He doesn’t panic. He’s got composure. He’s good with the puck. And he is smart. He pays attention to the details. I think it is a great pairing. I really like the kid. I’m looking forward to playing more with him.”
The confidence was already growing for Carrier. Add a veteran with such quality NHL experience such as Pardy on your left-side and he blossomed even more. In the 13 games that Carrier played after the arrival of Pardy he was producing at a point per game clip: 13 points (3 goals, 10 assists). His all-around game was looking polished and smooth. He didn’t look like someone who was the second youngest player on the Admirals roster to only Anthony Richard. He looked NHL good. And, on 1/12/17, the Predators thought he did too.
On that day, Carrier was walking to get a meal when he received a phone call from Washington D.C. that he didn’t recognize. He ignored it as a wrong number and fifteen minutes later he received a text from the same number. It was Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason who told him he was going up and to call back as soon as possible.
Carrier was able to do a little bit of what he did at the end of the 2015-16 season in Nashville. He got to take a look around. When the Predators hosted the Boston Bruins the day of his first career NHL recall he was on the ice for pre-game skate and was able to view the Bridgestone Arena in a regular season game environment for the first time.
“It felt the same as when I came [to Milwaukee] last year,” said Carrier. “I thought the thought process maybe was that. I wasn’t expecting to play. At first, when I got there, I was the seventh [defenseman]. Everyone was healthy except for [P.K. Subban]. I wasn’t expecting to play. I was there for the experience like last year.”
That night he would be a healthy scratch. The following game would see him make his NHL debut on the road against the Colorado Avalanche on 1/14/17. He would suit up once more for the next game, on the road against the Vancouver Canucks, before returning back to the Admirals in the AHL. He became the first member of the Predators 2015 NHL Draft Class to earn a recall and log a game.
“It was amazing,” Carrier said of his first experience in the NHL. “It was a dream come true for me to play my first NHL game. “I think the most exciting part, I was feeling so nervous, before the national anthem I was sitting on the bench looking.. it was sold out in Vancouver.. so I was looking around like, ‘oh my God, this is it.’ I was really thrilled about it, very nervous, but then when I got my first shift it was just another game.”
“What is this Carrier kid up to tonight,” you ask. Why, he is playing in the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic where he acts as the lone representative for the Milwaukee Admirals. It is the first proper distinction of what could be many to come in his pro career as the Québec native continues to press forward with his mature game on the ice combined with his great work ethic and joyful “aw-shucks” nature off the ice. While so many prospects can be grinding up and down under an immense spotlight, or perhaps under no scrutiny or expectations at all, there is a charm to the way Carrier has come in as a first-year pro at 19-years old and become what he is already. He made his NHL debut effectively three-months into his pro career. He’s the Admirals top all-around defenseman. He is still only learning the game at the professional level and can fill out physically to become even stronger than he currently is.
Saros arrived with hype and expectations. He’s meeting them. Carrier didn’t seem to arrive with any and he should be slapped on the Predators radar moving forward. He has all the talent to be the type of defenseman they pride themselves on having as well as developing. This level of performance that he is showing has been him while in a very early stage of his development. Carrier is becoming the type of player in Milwaukee I enjoy kicking back and watching just to watch him play. He’s good. And he is still growing.
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