Nearly a decade ago, playing junior hockey on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, 19-year-old William Carrier was a scoring machine. Between 2011-2014 he led the Screaming Eagles offense with 153 points in 139 games in the QMJHL.
The puck skills are obviously there, but have laid dormant for most of Carrier’s professional career. Wednesday night in Las Vegas those skills peaked through Carrier’s mostly direct, physical style of hockey when he dangled through three Ottawa defenders and scored the game-winning goal for the Golden Knights.
The 27-year-old’s confidence with the puck is at an all-time high with four goals in the last four games, and coming off the first two-goal game of his career Monday in Vancouver. He’s scored 43 career goals in 338 NHL games, none prettier than Wednesday’s.
He crossed the blue line late in the second period staring at three Senators defenders and decided to take them on himself. Ottawa’s Lassi Thomson missed his initial stick check as Carrier crossed over to his backhand, so he tried muscling Carrier off his line. Carrier bulldozed his way through that contact while simultaneously using his hip to shield Nick Holden from the puck on his other side, and chipped the puck past the goalie as he fell to the ice to put Vegas on top for good.
“I blacked out so I’ll have to recheck it,” Carrier said of the play, laughing in the dressing room following the game. “I’ve been hot right now so the confidence is high. Our line is playing pretty well. I found a little bit of a hole, stepped through it and got to the net.”
Carrier has been stellar for the Golden Knights over the first quarter of the season. He’s already netted seven goals — two off his career high — and is creating offense more consistently than he ever has in his seven-year career. Multiple factors have led to this offensive surge, with the first being increased opportunity.
Carrier is averaging 12 minutes and 33 seconds of ice time over the last nine games – well above his career average of 10 minutes per game. He’s played more than 13 minutes on five different occasions during that span. Like most players, the more he’s on the ice, and feels the puck, the more comfortable he becomes.
“That helps just to get into the rhythm of the game,” he said.
No player on the Golden Knights is generating more shots (11.9), scoring chances (12.98), high-danger chances (9.19) or goals (1.89) per 60 minutes than Carrier.
“He’s always had it,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said of Carrier. “Things are going in. He’s playing the right way. He’s going to the net. He’s one of the strongest guys in the league. He can put you through the boards, and he’s really good at driving wide and getting to the net. If you look at it over the years how many chances he’s had, and now they’re starting to go in for him.”
Another factor in Carrier’s impressive offensive start is what is being asked of him.
“We’ve been known to try to carry momentum, or get it back,” Carrier said of the fourth line’s role in the past. “Before it used to be hits and a good forecheck. Now we’re trying to get the big goals right after they score just to get the team going again.”
Between 2018 and 2020 no player in the NHL averaged more hits per 60 minutes than Carrier (23.74). Over the past three seasons that average dropped dramatically to 15.23 as Carrier transitioned to less of a bruising role and more of an offensive one.
“There’s a little bit less hitting,” he said. “Playing bigger minutes, you have to be a little more smart. Sometimes on the forecheck the play is just to get the puck, so the role has changed a little bit but we’re trying to bring the same thing every night.”
Carrier said that his recent success isn’t necessarily due to Bruce Cassidy’s system. He did set a career high in goals last season under DeBoer, after all. It’s more of a difference in expectations for his line every time they hop over the boards.
“The first couple years they were asking for a little bit of a different role,” he explained. “Coach has me doing a little bit more here, and obviously playing power play. I have a little touch right now. I’m hot right now so I’ll take it.”
Carrier believes that perhaps the biggest factor has been the chemistry he’s developed with linemate Keegan Kolesar.
“It’s my second year playing with Kolesar, and we’re just clicking right now,” Carrier said. “I know exactly where he’s going to be. He pushes the pace a lot and like on that goal there I have a lot of time to skate it up and make a play.”
The two have shared the ice for more than 375 minutes over the past two seasons and the synergy is apparent. Not only that, but Carrier believes Kolesar is the most skilled offensive player he’s had a chance to play extended time with on the line.
“Kolesar has a lot more skills and poise,” he said. “I’ve said it since day one, as soon as I saw him I knew he was going to be a big part of the fourth line. He can hit and do everything.”
The final piece that’s led to Carrier’s goal scoring is the hours of work he’s put in with assistant coach Misha Donskov. The two have worked together extensively since 2017, running drills off to the side of practice to sharpen Carrier’s puck skills.
“My offense has always been there,” Carrier said. “I’ve been practicing with Misha and trying to get it going. I try to get (to practice) early to work. We’ve been trying to get some goals on the fourth line. We’ve been saying that for years, and it’s panning out right now.
“The game kind of slows down for you. You don’t panic as much … Sometimes the game is just a little quick and the puck is bouncy. You just have to slow down, and having that confidence is a big thing.”
Donskov’s role for the Golden Knights has increased considerably over the last couple of seasons. Initially he only worked with players returning from injury, but eventually he joined full practices and is now a full-time assistant.
“When I sat with Misha this summer when I got hired there were conversations, and between Ryan Craig and Misha we got really good feedback from every player,” Cassidy said. “(GM Kelly McCrimmon) and I talked about that. He asked if I saw them on my staff, and what role they would have. The answer was yes.”
Cassidy knew he wanted Donskov on his staff, but the question became more about how big the role would be. He asked Donskov if he was ready for a full-time assistant coaching job, and if he could handle the increased workload along with the skills work he was already doing.
“It was yes and yes,” Cassidy said. “I think he’s done a really good job. The players have a ton of respect for Misha. They go to him when it comes to skills stuff because he’s worked so hard with them over the years. Good for him. We love him as a guy, we love him as a coach and I’m sure the players would echo that. He’s getting his opportunity to increase his role and so far so good.”
Carrier hasn’t been the only one to reap the rewards. Kolesar already has three goals (nearly halfway to his career high of seven), and Nic Roy has pitched in four goals and seven assists.
Cassidy highlighted the Golden Knights’ depth as its biggest strength through the first quarter of the season, and mentioned the contributions from the players typically seen as grinders are actually more important than the numbers themselves.
“Any time that line scores it just gives us juice,” he said. “They work so hard and they’re such popular teammates. They do a lot of the dirty work. So yeah, it’s a goal on the scoreboard, but your whole bench is lifted. The next guys can’t wait to get out there and follow it up.”
Carrier’s game is beginning to look more and more like it did in his high-flying days as a Cape Breton Screaming Eagle. Can he maintain it for an entire season? We’ll soon find out. For now, he’s scoring big goals and inspiring the entire team to an incredible start.
“He’s playing awesome,” McNabb said. “He’s been a rockstar for us. He’s so hard to play against, even in practice, and he’s showing it in games now and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
(Photo of William Carrier scoring against Senators goaltender Cam Talbot: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)