By Sean Hartnett
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They say in baseball that a “Quadruple-A” player is too good to be in the minors, but isn’t good enough to stick around in the majors. Paul Carey spent his first six professional seasons as hockey’s equivalent of just that type of player.
Prior to joining the Rangers, Carey’s stints in the NHL were infrequent and short-lived as evidenced by his time with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals. The most games he dressed for in a single season was 12 before his play in 2017-18 allowed him to suit up for 27 of the first 39.
Carey is out to prove he has staying power at hockey’s highest level. The 29-year-old forward scored the opening goal of the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win over the Sabres in the Winter Classic at Citi Field on Monday afternoon.
J.T. Miller got the glory for his sudden death winner, but Carey also put in a standout effort on the big stage. Playing on the fourth line alongside Boo Nieves and Jesper Fast, Carey showed a national audience what he’s all about. In addition to his first-period goal, the 6-foot-1 forward provided energy, speed, and relentless puck pursuit during his 9:50 of ice time.
Lately, Carey has been offering healthy production to go along with versatility, two-way smarts, and speed. He has recorded four points, including three goals, over the last six games. To put things in perspective, Carey had just one goal and one assist to his name in his previous 32 NHL games prior to joining the Rangers. This after tallying 182 points in 287 career AHL games.
There isn’t any kind of secret to Carey’s recent success. It seems all that he needed was a chance that lasted longer than a handful of games.
“I think it’s just a good fit,” Carey told WFAN.com. “I’m playing more, I’m getting better minutes with this team and I think it’s showing in the production that we’ve had on the fourth line this year. I’m just playing good hockey right now. I’ve been given a good opportunity here where I’m getting ice time on a regular basis. When you do that, your confidence builds. You seem to make more plays and find more opportunities.”
A strong fourth line draws hard assignments and has to fight to establish its fair share of offensive zone time. Though the personnel has sometimes varied, the Rangers’ fourth line has provided dependability and push-back when deployed for defensive zone starts.
“Our line, we bring some energy and we get our job done in the defensive zone,” Carey said. “We try to make sure that we’re playing in their end instead of our end. When we do have the opportunity, we like to take advantage of it and get some points. If we can limit our mistakes and limit our matchups’ opportunities in our end, I think that reflects good on our fourth line. I think we have to have good speed on that line and create some energy and try to wear down some of their lines, too. In doing so, it helps the team out.”
Good general managers and a keen-eyed scouting staff can pick out diamonds in the rough. Perhaps other organizations saw something in Carey, but weren’t able to give him enough leeway to prove his worth. A role opened with the Rangers and he earned the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault. Carey was not sent down in November, despite being a healthy scratch for nine consecutive games and, later, for three straight.
Since Carey sat out on Nov. 17, he has dressed in 19 consecutive games. He has totaled four goals and four assists over the last 14 games.
“Paul came in and you could tell right away (that he’s) a good skater and that speed enabled him to get in on the forecheck,” Vigneault said last Thursday. “He was good in his puck battles one-on-one, got an opportunity to play and in that opportunity, he’s found a way to contribute. So, he’s got to continue.
“Depending on the game, he’s getting pretty good minutes. We need him — just like we need the rest of our crew — to find ways to contribute,” Vigneault added. “Whether that be on the scoresheet, blocking shots, on the forecheck, getting pucks out, Paul is no different and he’s getting a good opportunity here — a more consistent opportunity than he probably had in the past on other teams.”
Carey has seized his latest opportunity with both hands and has not let it slip through his fingers.
And it doesn’t appear that he will be on the bus to AHL Hartford any time soon.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey