Alex Carrier burst onto the scene last season during his first full run of professional hockey. The defenseman from Québec handled everything with such maturity, poise, and precision that it was often times hard to believe he was only 20-years old and fresh off a major junior career with Gatineau Olympiques.
It was all such a blur. He was selected as an AHL All-Star representative for his efforts with the Milwaukee Admirals. He earned an NHL recall in January and would suit up twice to enjoy in his first ever experiences with the Nashville Predators. He would even end his season being around the Predators to watch their run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I mean, that was pretty awesome,” smiled Carrier. “Obviously at the end of the season I looked back. I had a great year. I was really happy with it.”
Unfortunately, this season hasn’t been that way. It has been difficult. And it hasn’t been as effortless as Carrier appeared to make it look. That doesn’t mean that this has been a bad season. This sophomore season for Carrier has been one long learning process.
When Carrier first arrived to Milwaukee it was at the very end of the 2015-16 season. His time with Gatineau had come to and end and he was able to get a look at the city of Milwaukee, meet coaching staff and future teammates, and see the pace and preparation up close before he would even compete as a pro.
This preparation helped to guide him past a few rookie landmines or even be in a better frame of mind walking into that first professional season. Still, his first few games with the Admirals in 2016-17 were tough.
The opportunities were limited for Carrier early. He was playing in a reduced role and still adjusting to the AHL. Then Matt Irwin, the Admirals veteran option of defense at the time, was called up to the Predators. His roles and opportunities shifted towards Carrier who started to excel.
Irwin would not be in the cards for a Milwaukee return so that meant that the Admirals needed to find a replacement. They found one in Adam Pardy and he would soon link up with Carrier.
“Pardy was real good for him,” stated Milwaukee Admirals assistant coach Stan Drulia. “A calming influence. A veteran guy to lean on. A guy with a ton of NHL experience.”
The two quickly became the Admirals top defensive pairing and Carrier’s work load and opportunities for playing time were increased. He was a first choice option for the power-play and penalty kill. His work on and off the ice were such that he eventually made his way to the NHL. His game oozed confidence and maturity beyond his years. He had entered the season with no expectations but created several for himself in the process.
“Obviously there were huge expectations coming off of his first year,” Drulia added. “He was outstanding last year. I think this year he has had some growing pains. His game has really been a lot of ups and a lot of downs this year.
“I think he has struggled to find some consistency. Whether there is a sophomore jinx or that type of thing. But there is a learning curve for these young defensemen. We asked a lot of our young [defense] to play major roles for our hockey team. [Carrier] is still figuring that out right now.”
This season there was no mystery surrounding Carrier. People knew who he was and that he was going to be a big part of what the Admirals defense would be about. Not only that but Carrier’s focus had also changed.
“It has been a lot different,” spoke Carrier of his sophomore season. “I think when I got here last year as a rookie I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted to play and be in the lineup. This year was different because of that, expectations and more responsibilities, and it has been up-and-down.”
“[Carrier] has had challenges this year,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “There’s no question. He had such a great year last year, All-Star, just everything. People know who [Carrier] is.”
Another slight problem for Carrier came in the form of something that was still incredibly positive.
As last season ended he was selected as one of the “Black Aces” from the Admirals to be brought into the mix for the Predators during their playoff run. As it so happens, Carrier’s first year under the Predators organizational banner also happened to be the season they reached their first Stanley Cup Final. He was able to experience it all up close.
So, what’s the catch?
“He needs to get stronger,” stated Drulia. “It’s one aspect that we’ve talked about with him is he needs a real good Summer in the gym. You know, last year maybe hurt him a little bit. He spent a long time in Nashville and was right back in Nashville for Development Camp. So he probably lost a bit of time in the weight room that he needs to be diligent about this year.”
Short Summer? No veteran security blanket? There are no excuses from anybody on what has happened. The Admirals season has largely been an up-and-down roller coaster ride in 2017-18. In many ways, the young defense of the Admirals is at the center of that.
“We didn’t have a lot of NHL experience on the back end this year,” mentioned Drulia. “We’re relying on Jack Dougherty, [Jimmy Oligny], [Carrier], and then you bring in [Fred Allard, Joonas Lyytinen, and Petter Granberg]. It’s a really young group back there. They get thrust into some situations where they probably would like a little more time to develop in but sometimes being thrown into the fire long-term would be good for them.”
Naturally then, what you will get from such a young mix of players are mistakes. Some are minimal. Some are compounding. Considering the defensive make-up of the Admirals, and what last season was for Carrier, there could often be times of doing too much.
“A lot of it is trying to calm Alex down and to settle in a little bit,” smiled Drulia of Carrier. “He just wants to be a difference – and a lot of times he is a difference. Sometimes on the good side. Sometimes on the wrong side of it. It’s been a little bit of a challenge managing expectations but he is a leader. That comes out of him naturally.”
Which comes to how positive this season has actually been for Carrier despite the flash or prestige that his first professional season might have had. He has been at the forefront of a lot of the hardships that this Admirals season had endured.
“Just because you have a bit of adverse situations like he has this year, and some challenges, it’s not a bad thing for him as far as development,” stated Evason. “He has learned to play in different situations and play a lot of minutes.”
And, while the Admirals did not have their Pardy type like a season ago, what can’t be ignored is the opportunity for young players such as Carrier to allow themselves to grow and become leaders themselves. Carrier is someone who was a captain with Gatineau during his major junior career. That comes from both what he provides on the ice as well as off of it.
“He’s a leader,” said Drulia. “He’s got all of those attributes in his game. It’s his personality. It’s his DNA. It’s who he is. He’s a good pro. He does all the right things off the ice in his preparation. You can never fault him or question his work ethic whether it’s in practice or in a game. He lays it all on the line.”
What exactly has this sophomore season been then for Carrier? It’s one of thorough learning at a very high level.
“I think he is going to learn a lot from this year – in his preparation and what it takes consistently to get the job done every day,” mentioned Drulia. “With his personality and his commitment. He’ll figure it out.”
Carrier’s sophomore season also shouldn’t be labeled down to success or failure in regards to whether or not he made it back to the Nashville Predators as he had so quickly ascended to them as a 20-year old the year prior. It’s been an unusual season for both the Predators, Admirals, and Carrier. The chance to make another splash in the NHL wasn’t in the cards this season. And, knock on wood, that’s just been something out of everyone’s hands.
“Nashville has been very healthy – especially on defense,” said Evason. “Fortunately for them and unfortunate for some guys as far as getting called up and getting put into those positions.”
“It’s a process. They all know it. We emphasize it. We communicate with them that there is a process. In [Carrier]’s case just because you didn’t get called up doesn’t mean he’s not developing this year. [Carrier] will be fine.”
The Admirals were able to make the playoffs a season ago. Things soured slightly at season’s end and yet another playoff sweep was experienced for the fan base. Milwaukee has seen eleven straight playoff losses and three consecutive playoff exits via the three-game sweep. For Carrier, it was simply his first professional playoff experience.
At the moment the Admirals are in a much different scenario than where they ended last season. The Admirals must play playoff hockey each and every game until the finish if they are to hope they make it into the 2018 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. There have been so many young players that are maturing through what has been a trying season. Carrier happens to be one of them.
“There have been some weeks that have been harder,” said Carrier. “Maybe I was trying to do too much. I think when I got back to my game, a simple game, it’s good. It’s been up-and-down sometimes but hopefully we can go up right now and get that playoff spot.”
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