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‘This game is very humbling’: The fine line between the NHL and AHL doesn’t leave much room for error

The road to the NHL isn’t always a straight path, and sometimes a step back is needed to go forward.

Shanna Martin

While Daniel Carr was a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization, he was the personification of a bubble player. From the 2015-16 season, when he made his National Hockey League debut, to 2017-18 he played 94 games in the NHL, and 63 games in the American Hockey League.

After the Canadiens declined to provide him with a qualifying offer, he signed with the Vegas Golden Knights. This off-season, he signed with the Nashville Predators. In the one-plus season since leaving the Canadiens, he has played 68 AHL games, and only 10 games in the NHL, counting Monday’s games.

It’s not like Carr wasn’t performing. He was the American Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player last season after scoring 71 points in 52 games with the Chicago Wolves.

Winning the AHL’s MVP trophy can almost be considered like a kiss of death for a sustained NHL career. Over the last 33 seasons, no one has won the award more than once. Over that same span, among the 33 winners of the Les Cunningham Award, only four have played 500 NHL games: Paul Ysebaert, John Anderson, Randy Robitaille, and Jason Spezza. Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning is at 489, and will likely reach that mark. Spezza won MVP in the 2004-05 season affected by the NHL lockout.

The last three winners of the award also spent time in the Canadiens organization: Carr, Phil Varone, and Kenny Agostino.

After playing only six NHL games a year ago, Carr broke camp with the Predators and played in three NHL games. Then, he was sent down to the Milwaukee Admirals.

“I’ll be the the first one to tell you this was kind of self-inflicted,” Carr said after the Admirals played the Laval Rocket on November 15. “I’ve started to play really well but at the start of the year for whatever reason I just didn’t really have it. I made Nashville out of camp but to be honest with you if I was playing like I have been the last seven or eight games I’d probably still be there.”

Carr had 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points in his 16 AHL games with Milwaukee.

“I was talking with [Predators forwards development coach] Sebastien Bordeleau about this,” Carr said. “It’s one of those things in life. No one feels sorry for you. When you feel sorry for yourself that’s when you get yourself in trouble. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with having the support I have with my wife and my family and my mentors. I’ve always come down to American League and felt I’ve played well and not pouted. And I think that’s the most important thing.”

His play in the AHL ended up getting him another chance. He was recalled to the Predators on Monday.

November’s game in Laval was Carr’s first time back in the city since becoming a free agent. He only spent 20 games with the Rocket, but he looks back at his time with the Canadiens fondly.

Carr spent the Admirals’ off day in the city to explore and catch up with friends and former teammates. He also talked about the way he dealt with the NHL and AHL team being so close.

“When I was here, it was awesome,” he said. “I lived in Old Montreal. I took the metro [subway] to some games when I played [in Laval]. For the older guys, the guys that know how to stay out of trouble, it’s great. You can live downtown and experience the city that is Montreal and with that comes some responsibility to take care of yourself and be a pro, but I enjoyed it.”

“Man, it was great,” he says. “I got called up to Montreal and I was a closer drive to Brossard [where the Canadiens practice facility is] every day.”

After the game versus the Rocket, Carr walked to the home locker room and waited outside to catch up with old friends. Of course, he’s the first to acknowledge the amount of turnover in the organization over the season and a bit he’s been away, but one player he played with — and with whom he can probably relate to better than most — is Charles Hudon.

Ironically, Hudon and Carr both scored in the November matchup at Place Bell, and both were recalled to the NHL within the 10-day period that followed.

Carr acknowledges that he hadn’t followed the situation in Montreal with his former teammate, but knows that sometimes an opportunity is all you need.

No one, other than Hudon, knows what he went through more than Matthew Peca. Last season, Peca and Hudon watched Canadiens games from the press box like Statler and Waldorf watched the Muppets. Of the 164 combined games that Peca and Hudon were on the NHL roster, they were scratched for 93 of them (57.6%). Hudon was a healthy scratch for the final 22 games of the season, while Peca was scratched for 18 of the team’s final 19 games.

After Hudon was recalled, Peca’s game started to take off in its own right. Peca offered some perspective on the disappointment of being sent down to the AHL.

“Obviously you want to play in the NHL,” Peca said. “I don’t want to speak for everybody but I know some of us were pretty relieved that the weight was lifted off our shoulders. We knew where we stood now whereas before it was kind of a day-to-day thing. I think we’re all looking forward to having more roles and more opportunity and getting our game back. Charlie’s a great example. He comes out here, finds his game, gets comfortable, gets called up, and I guarantee he’s better for it playing up there now than he would have if he had started the season there.”

Peca, who played under 40 games in a season for the first time in his professional career and not due to injuries, acknowledges that being able to play is a huge positive.

“Obviously we’re not content with playing here,” he said. “But this is where it starts. This is where you have some fun, and you go back to the drawing board and guys get called up and go up there and you put yourself out there.”

For players on the bubble, sometimes it’s about getting a chance, and sometimes it’s about performing. And those two aspects don’t always have the best timing.

“Sometimes in your career you don’t get any opportunity sometimes you get a lot and your game’s not right where it needs to be at that time,” Carr said.

It all aligned for Carr on Monday night. After being recalled, he was in the Predators lineup. He ended up playing on a line with Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund, and scored the shootout winner.