At the Montreal Canadiens' annual charity golf tournament prior to training camp last season, a member of the management team was asked to assess their offseason.
The Canadiens had acquired forward PA Parenteau and a draft pick from the Colorado Avalanche for little-used veteran Daniel Briere, a trade that was widely acclaimed as a win for Montreal. On the free agent market, the Canadiens signed veteran center Manny Malhotra to pivot the fourth line and defenseman Tom Gilbert to fill out their top four on the blue line, and they won what was a bit of a derby to sign young forward Jiri Sekac out of the Kontinental Hockey League.
But none of those names topped the list for this member of the Canadiens front office. Instead, it was a widely ignored college free agent signing.
“The guy we're really excited about,” the executive said that day, “is Daniel Carr.”
Less than a year later, only Gilbert remains of those four other offseason acquisitions; Sekac was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in February, Parenteau signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs after the final year of his contract was bought out by Montreal, and Malhotra has been informed he will not be re-signed by the Canadiens.
Then there is Carr, poised to compete for a spot on the Canadiens this fall after a tremendous first season of professional hockey with Hamilton in the American Hockey League. Carr, 23, led AHL rookies and Hamilton with 24 goals in 2014-15, making him a prime candidate to fill a serious offensive need for the Canadiens.
“Daniel Carr is someone who if you have a chance to put it on his stick, he's going to put it in,” said Charles Hudon, Carr's linemate last season who will compete to make the Canadiens at training camp.
“He can score goals. I like playing with him because it's not complicated; just put it on his stick and he'll put it in.”
Though he was an unknown to most fans, Carr was identified by the Canadiens as the one college free agent they wanted last year. Fresh off an NCAA championship with Union College, Carr had completed a remarkably consistent four-year college career and had upwards of 10 teams expressing varying degrees of interest in signing him to a contract.
But the Canadiens were the most serious.
“We tried to help Dan when teams called,” said Rick Bennett, who was Carr's coach at Union College. “Some listened, some didn't. I credit Montreal for listening.”
Carr, a native of Sherwood Park, Alberta, grew up admiring Ryan Smyth's ability to score goals from the lip of the crease with the Edmonton Oilers and has adopted that mentality himself as a player. At 6-foot, 193 pounds, Carr is not exactly built to play that way but does so regardless, reminiscent of someone who may soon be a teammate, Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher.
Appropriately enough, Carr is spending part of his summer training with Gallagher in Vancouver.
“He's a very, very dedicated young man,” said Sylvain Lefebvre, Carr's coach in Hamilton last season. “His desire level is where it needs to be, not only for how he adapted to the pro game, but also to make it to the next level.
“He's relentless on the puck. For a smaller guy, he's not afraid to go to the places where it hurts.”
Carr's been that way throughout his career, dating to his time in the Alberta Junior (A) Hockey League, which he was leading in scoring during his first draft-eligible season in 2009-10 with 54 points in 30 games for the St. Albert Steel. But then he was traded to Powell River in the British Columbia Hockey League, his scoring pace slowed, and Carr's name was never called at the 2010 NHL Draft.
The following season, his freshman year at Union, Carr formed a line with Calgary Flames forward Josh Jooris and Jeremy Welsh, who is in the St. Louis Blues system, and the three were dominant, leading Carr to once again think he might get drafted in 2011.
It didn't happen.
But Carr had the benefit of having some smart people advising him, including his father, Jim Carr, who was an NHL Players' Association certified agent for close to 20 years.
“You look back on it and at the time you're disappointed, but your family's telling you that you're better off because now you're a free agent and you can go wherever you want to go,” Carr said last week at Canadiens development camp.
“Then when you're there and you have teams offering you contracts, you're looking back saying, 'Thank God I didn't get drafted.' So it ends up being a huge positive. At the time I was disappointed, but looking back who knows? Maybe Montreal wouldn't have wanted to draft me and I'm fortunate enough to end up here. It's such a great organization to be a part of.”
Carr had a big role to play in him winding up in Montreal with a tremendous career at Union, finishing as the school's career Division 1 leader in goals and points and helping lead the Dutchmen to the first NCAA championship in school history in 2014.
Bennett noted that Carr sustained a significant shoulder injury late in that 2013-14 season at Cornell, one that required surgery following the season but kept Carr out of a single game. In his first game back from the injury, Carr began a 12-game point streak that ran through him getting one assist in the NCAA championship game, scoring nine goals and 20 points in that span, including five goals and four assists in four games in the ECAC playoffs to be named that tournament's most outstanding player.
“It just shows that in the big-time games, he's going to be there,” Bennett said. “He always was.”
Carr was asked how he can translate his experience winning an NCAA championship to the professional level, and he paused to give it some thought.
“It gives you just a different level of when it matters,” Carr said. “In the NCAA tournament, everything's Game 7. You lose, you're out. It gives you a different level of what it takes to win. Every little detail matters and what kind of character your team has to have to win. That's what it taught me and what it taught all of us at Union when we won there.
“That experience going that way helped you grow up a little. It helped you realize that it takes a lot to win and it takes a lot to play, and it shows you how hard you have to work to play pro. I mean, you get to pro and you've gone through that and you realize it's an everyday thing.”
Carr is hoping to do those things on an everyday basis in the NHL starting this fall. If that happens, perhaps the rest of us will finally understand what the Canadiens were so excited about last summer.
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