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Michael Carcone hopes that history will repeat itself — even if the circumstances of his recall are the result of misfortune for a friend whose footsteps he’d like to follow.
Last season, Matias Maccelli was leading the Roadrunners in points and was well on his way to setting the franchise’s single-season points record when Coyotes’ injuries led to his recall. Maccelli played 23 games and earned a permanent spot on this season’s team.
Unfortunately for Maccelli, he suffered a lower-body injury in a win against the Los Angeles Kings on Friday that will shelve him for about six weeks. With Liam O’Brien also week to week with an upper-body injury, the Coyotes were down to 10 forwards when the holiday break began.
In the immediate aftermath of the injury, Maccelli would have been forgiven for wallowing in a little self pity. He was second among NHL rookies in points with 22 and he even had his own mug shot on nhl.com. Instead of lamenting his misfortune, Maccelli sent out a hopeful text message to his former Tucson linemate.
“I don’t even know if his game was over yet,” Carcone said. “We were playing, too, but I just checked my phone and sure enough, there was a text from Matias. He said he went down with an injury and he hoped I would get the call-up.”
It was a no-brainer for the Coyotes. Like Maccelli the season before, Carcone was leading the Roadrunners in points and was well on his way to setting the franchise’s single-season points record. He also led the AHL with 42 points in 27 games.
“We call down and talk to the Tucson coaches regularly and we meet weekly to talk about who is playing well down there,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “We really try to take the best player down there for the position that we need and not have it just to be a given that certain prospects are going to be called up. We want guys competing down there and improving and I think when you do it that way you create competition.
“Obviously, he’s a skilled player down there, but his role changes a little bit when he gets called up here. He might not see the power play time. That doesn’t mean he can’t go in there and do it but his role changes a little bit so you’ve got to factor that into your recall. But we love what he’s done down there and he gave great energy to our team when he came up last year so now there’s another opportunity.”
Carcone hopes this latest opportunity will allow him to fulfill his ultimate dream while his former Roadrunners linemate heals.
“There’s obviously some benefit in me coming up, but you don’t wish that upon anyone,” he said of Maccelli. “I hope he gets better fast and gets out there and plays again.”
If Carcone, 26, has his way, he’ll be skating alongside Maccelli. In his mind, he has waited long enough and he has made the right adjustments in his game. A lot of the credit for that epiphany goes to the Roadrunners coaching staff.
“I know it puts stress on our team when you lose your leading scorer, but this is the part we enjoy; seeing a guy earn his chance,” Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin said. “This is a guy that came through the summertime and expected to make a splash right away in camp but didn’t get the opportunity and got sent down.
“It was challenging for him to start the season here. He was not in a good place. For lack of a better word, he was pissy and he had to persevere through some of those challenges. He’s at a point in his career where he wanted to play and thought he had made enough of an impact to stay last year. Instead, he had to come back down and prove that he could do more.”
A long road for Carcone
Hockey was an obvious choice for the three Carcone brothers (Tony, Tyler and Michael) growing up outside of Toronto. While Paul Carcone never played the game and introduced his boys to multiple sports, the lure of the national pastime was irresistible.
“They all migrated to hockey, but Michael (the youngest) just seemed to have that little extra,” Paul said. “We heard all through minor hockey that he was too small, but honestly in minor hockey it was not a big deal because there was no talk like, ‘Hey, my kid’s going to the NHL.’ It was all about just working hard and if you want to play, just keep doing it and you’ll do fine. All I could ever instill in him is ‘just work hard.'”
Nobody drafted Carcone out of Drummondville in the QMJHL, but when he erupted for 89 points in 66 games during his 19-year-old season, he got offers to attend training camps for the Maple Leafs and Canucks. He could have chosen the hometown Leafs but when Vancouver GM Jim Benning called, he swung for the fences.
“They asked him, ‘Well, what’s it going to take to get you out here?’ And he said, ‘I want a three-year entry level contract,'” Paul said. “I remember just shaking my head like ‘What are you talking about? You don’t ask for that.’ But sure enough, he got it.”
Carcone had to act as his own agent because the family could not find a certified agent who would represent him (Murray Koontz represents him now). The three-year, $2.025 million contract was not his ticket to the NHL, however.
He played two-plus seasons with Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Utica, New York before the Canucks traded him to the Maple Leafs for forward Josh Leivo. He played the rest of that season for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. When his contract was not renewed, he signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Senators and spent one season with their AHL affiliate in Belleville before they traded him to Nashville. When the Predators’ AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, went on hiatus for the COVID affected season of 2020-21, they loaned him to the Roadrunners. He signed a two-year, $1.5 million contract with Tucson the following summer.
There were times along that winding path when he and Paul discussed the possibility of playing in Europe. There were times when Michael wondered if he’d ever get his NHL chance, and there were times when Paul had to talk him through anger, resentment or discouragement.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy and I can get frustrated if something doesn’t go my way on the ice or if I am not playing,” Carcone said. “Whatever it may be, I can just kind of lean on him and he’s always going to be realistic with me. Maybe he says, ‘Hey, you weren’t good tonight so maybe it’s not anyone else,’ but most of the time he kind of just calms me down. He’ll say, ‘It’s alright. Tomorrow’s a new day.’ He’s pretty awesome with that stuff. He’s been my rock and I’m so very thankful for him.”
The finer points
When the Coyotes sent Carcone back to Tucson after camp this fall, his task was clear.
“It’s not a question of knowing if he has the talent, if he has the shot, if he has the skill, if he has the speed,” coach André Tourigny said. “It’s a matter of, can he play a consistent 200-foot game? That’s what separated him from the NHL.”
And that’s what Potvin and his staff drilled into Carcone.
“He’s a scorer that tries to create offense and a lot of times it wasn’t coming from the defensive side earlier in his career,” Potvin said. “But I gotta say, he’s come with the right plan and the right attitude, and he’s been rewarded. He’s been facing the puck and if things kind of go sideways, he’s able to stop and get back into the play and prevent the next play from happening against us. He’s been able to eliminate those extra possessions against us.
“The other thing is, sometimes offensive players don’t always finish checks and stop and stay in front of the puck. A lot of times they’ll circle and skate away from the play, but he’s been finishing checks and staying on the right side of pucks and it’s actually been giving more offense to his game.”
Carcone has had a lot of different linemates this season in Tucson, from Nathan Smith and Adam Cracknell, to Laurent Dauphin, Jean-Sébastien Dea, Ben McCartney and Miloš Kelemen. Through it all he has been a consistent force on the power play and at 5 on 5.
“He’s finding different ways to score on the power play,” Potvin said. “In the previous year, we saw him get rewards from Matias through seam passes, and this year the seam passes weren’t coming so it was challenging for him. So he made himself a threat going downhill instead of sitting back door, looking for one-timers.”
Carcone was still nervous when he made his Coyotes season debut on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche, but it helped that he had been there before, it helped that he was playing on a more skilled line with Nick Bjugstad and Lawson Crouse, and it helped that he got his first goal out of the way to relieve some of the pressure he was feeling.
“Parts of training camp, I had the opportunity to play with him so it seemed like we picked up right where we left off,” Crouse said. “On his first shift he had a breakaway; almost had one right off the drop of the puck. He’s so smart, so skilled and so fast and obviously he has a lethal release so he’s a lot of fun to play with.”
Carcone has only played 22 NHL games, but the father of two (Eli, 3, and Lennon, 1) felt a lot wiser, and even more driven in the 22nd game than he did in the first 21.
“When you’re younger, you really just want that call-up. You’re really hungry and you think that just getting points is gonna get you there,” he said. “But that’s not really it honestly. It’s a whole, complete game.
“The staff here and the staff in Tucson made it very clear what I have to do by playing hard, playing with details, playing good defensively, being a little bit aggressive and maybe even fighting — things like that away from the puck that are going to benefit my game. It was really clear coming in what I had to do to put myself in a position to stay. That’s pretty much the mindset that I’m taking into this chance.”
Top photo via Getty Images: Michael Carcone scores in his first game after his call-up off a pass from Lawson Crouse.
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