Top-ranked goalie Bjarnason ready to prove himself again after NHL draft
Carson Bjarnason was passed over in the 2020 Western Hockey League draft.
"I had to learn to take it the right way," the goalie from Carberry, Man. said. "Obviously it sucks, but looking at in a different light, it was just more motivation to prove people wrong. I was going to play in the Western League one day. Being as close to Brandon as I am, 30 minutes away, and watching their games growing up, I wanted to play for the Wheat Kings."
Brandon put Bjarnason, who stood just 5-foot-9 at the time, on their protected list. He soon experienced a growth spurt and shot up four inches before being signed. Bjarnason served as the back-up goalie last season before moving up the depth chart this year. He posted a .900 save percentage in 47 games this season.
"He's amazing," said Wheat Kings co-captain Nate Danielson. "But what really makes him so good is his compete [level]. I get to see it on and off the ice every day. He's such a hard worker in the gym and on the ice in practice. He just wants to get better and he continues to do that every day. I'm really excited for him."
Brandon missed the playoffs, but Bjarnason performed so well that NHL Central Scouting ranked him No. 1 among all North American based goalies eligible for the draft.
"If two years ago I told myself that would happen I would say 'You're bonkers,'" said Bjarnason, who will turn 18 later this month.
It's tough to project when goalies will be picked. Bjarnason came in at No. 59 on TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie's final ranking of prospects, which is based on a survey of scouts. He was the second goalie on the list behind Czechia's Michael Hrabel, who came in at No. 39.
Bjarnason is travelling to Nashville with no expectations.
"Hopefully I'll be picked from round one to seven, anywhere," he said. "You've worked as hard as you can and now it's just letting the chips fall where they may and hoping for the best."
During a conversation with TSN, Bjarnason reflected on his rise as well as his Metis heritage. He also recalled how watching Miikka Kiprusoff inspired his decision to be a goalie. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
TSN: What would it mean to be the first goalie selected in the draft?
Bjarnason: It's definitely cool when you think about it like that. At the end of the day, for me, it's about being able to respond well after the draft. I mean, we're all going to development camp right after and we're all on the same playing field from there. So, it's being able to prove myself and let them know that they made the right decision. That is the most important thing.
TSN: Presumptive first overall pick Connor Bedard mentioned he didn't score on you in a couple games. How'd you pull that off?
Bjarnason: We talked about that (smile). He rung one or two off the post. You watch him and try to pick up on his tendencies. He's a widely-broadcasted player so you try to pick up on it as best you can and try to treat him a little extra special and make sure you're bearing down.
TSN: What stands out about his shot?
Bjarnason: His stick is really long for his body and he pulls it in so much. He's able to release it from anywhere. I mean, he's in stride, out of stride, anywhere, he's below the goal line, you have to treat him as pretty special out there and make sure you have a target on him.
TSN: Did you notice tendencies?
Bjarnason: He just pulled it in a lot. His stick is pretty long and some guys may look at it and be wowed by it, but it's being able to read his release. While he's pulling it in that close to his body, it's just shifting with it.
TSN: What was the biggest change for you this season?
Bjarnason: The amount of games. I played close to 50 compared to just under 25 last year. It's a bit of an adjustment learning how how to take care of your body and learning how to be a starter.
TSN: Where did your game improve the most?
Bjarnason: I had a lot of poise this year. The aura I gave off in the net definitely improved from last year. Also, I was able to read the game better with my off-puck awareness and overall IQ.
TSN: How did you work on your aura?
Bjarnason: At 16, I had people telling me I had a really calm game and they liked the way I played, but some nights I'd overdo it and act a little too calm and maybe stay behind the play a little bit. So, it's having a balance between having that certain intensity, but also being laidback and not showing any emotion.
TSN: Brandon missed the playoffs. How did you deal with the losses mentally?
Bjarnason: Controlling my emotions. That's something I've always had. Super fortunate with the way I was brought up. It's just really treating it one puck at a time. It's just me and the puck out there. I can't really focus on any outside noise. So, just control what you can to the best of your abilities.
TSN: What did you take from the under-18 World Championship experience and being Canada's starter?
Bjarnason: It was pretty cool. It was my first time overseas. The ice was a bit different. It took me a little bit to get used to that. Overall, it was fun and we had a great group of guys.
TSN: What was the biggest adjustment?
Bjarnason: They can really shoot from anywhere. They're all pretty good players so being able to read their release from far out.
TSN: Who is your NHL role model?
Bjarnason: I've always loved watching Carey Price and just the way he is. It's a pretty common answer, I'm sure, but the way he plays and carries himself on and off the ice has always been something I've admired.
TSN: Why did you want to become a goalie?
Bjarnason: I remember watching Miikka Kiprusoff with the Flames. It was one certain game, I can't remember, it might've been against San Jose, and he made a big save and it was something I was drawn too. In the basement, my older brother would throw me in and you just sit there and if you made a big save you feel good about yourself. You play for those close games, the 2-1 games, big games and the pressure is fun. It's fun to come out on the winning side.
TSN: How old were you when you saw Kiprusoff?
Bjarnason: I was probably around 10. I had started playing net full time around 13 so I would've been 10 or 11 when I saw that.
TSN: What's your favourite type of save to make?
Bjarnason: Just the standard save. One when I'm in position and you don't have to move much and you're able to read and react and have your hands loose. I think I play a simple game, pretty black and white, so just keeping it simple and making sure I'm making stuff look easy.
TSN: Can you walk us through your mask design and the meaning behind it?
Bjarnason: Brian Shott did an amazing job. There's a big Wheat Kings logo on each side. It's got the laces running down the chin like Price. I remember seeing a lot of his masks had that. It was nice of Brian to let me have the creativity to do what I wanted. So, I drew up a bear. My last name, the first five letters of it, means bear. Growing up I had a nickname. I was a bit grumpy waking up in the morning so my mom called me a nickname (laugh). On the other side, I have a combine with wheat. My grandpa was a farmer. I remember he would throw me up on the combine and we would harvest the field for a day so it was cool to do that and translate that onto my mask.
TSN: So, your mom called you 'Bear'?
Bjarnason: Uh, yeah, along those lines, yep (smile).
TSN: What's your family background?
Bjarnason: I'm Icelandic and First Nations on the Metis side. That's my dad's side. The bear is a pretty big staple for Indigenous Peoples.
TSN: What's that heritage mean to you?
Bjarnason: A lot. It's something I'm proud to represent and broadcast and create awareness of. Everywhere you go people have it in mind so it's nice to be able to be a part of that group.