By Stu Hackel
There have been few trades consummated as the NHL approaches the trade deadline and none involving players who could be considered top-end talent. But the Thursday evening swap between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings -- in which the Kings gave up defenseman Jack Johnson, a former third overall draft pick, and a future first-round pick in exchange for another former first-round pick, Jeff Carter -- marked a deal involving big names that could kick start more movement as the Monday deadline approaches.
"This isn't a rental. This isn't your classic trade deadline deal," Kings GM Dean Lombardi said Thursday night. "This is a good young player for a good young player. This is a hockey deal."
It's a deal that theoretically helps both teams. The Kings, who have won once in their last seven games and twice in their last 10, are fighting for their playoff lives after many believed they'd be a Stanley Cup contender this year. They are the worst scoring team in the NHL, averaging only 2.05 goals a game, which is low by historic proportions. They've been shut out three times this month and held to one goal four other times. In Carter, they get a forward who has three times topped the 30-goal mark when he played for the Flyers and in 2008-09 hit for 46.
He's got good size, is an excellent skater with a hard shot and has the ability to play either wing or center and kill penalties. The Blue Jackets acquired him to be the center they've never had for Rick Nash, their excellent winger, who has been the subject of the most trade speculation the last few weeks. But the chemistry wasn't right. Carter is not a distributor of the puck as much as he's a sniper himself. If he produces, he'll be a big asset for the Kings.
The Kings initially wanted Nash, who has topped the 30-plus mark six times and 40 twice for Columbus. But The Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday that Nash -- who has a no-movement clause in his contract -- wasn't interested in joining the Kings. So Lombardi turned his attention to Carter.
The deal reunites Carter with his on- and off-ice partner from their days with the Flyers, Mike Richards. The two were regular and productive linemates -- and (if the gossip is true) two wild and crazy guys who (if the gossip is true) alienated their Philly teammates, causing Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to dispatch both of them last offseason, Richards to L.A. and Carter to Columbus.
Carter was immediately miserable when he was shipped out and wouldn't speak publicly for a few days. He tried to put a good face on the deal, but word leaked out early in the season that he wanted to be traded from Columbus. The team's awful start -- which was partly the result of his missing 10 games with a broken foot and the suspension of defenseman James Wisniewski, signed as a free agent -- did nothing to help him embrace his new surroundings. Having sunk to the bottom of the league, where they've remained from the start of the season, the Blue Jackets were effectively out of the playoff hunt by the end of October.
The fact that Carter sulked in Columbus -- especially after he had signed an 11-year, $58-million contract extension with the Flyers through to the 2021–2022 season in November 2010 -- may have soured some teams on making substantial offers for him. Lombardi told media Thursday night that he wasn't concerned about Carter's character, that assistant coach John Stevens knows Carter well from his stint coaching the Flyers.
“I think Jeff struggled with this right from the outset,” Columbus GM Scott Howson said. “He made a long-term commitment in Philadelphia. It was hard for him to deal with (the June) trade. I thought he came in with an open attitude. The season got off on the wrong foot. We couldn’t get on the winning track. He got injured early. We decided it might be the right thing to try to make a move with him.”
It helps the Blue Jackets somewhat that they are shedding Carter's $5,272,727 salary-cap hit and taking on Johnson's $4,357,143 hit. Johnson signed a seven-year, $30.5-million contract extension last year with the Kings. Also helping is the first-round pick, which will transfer to Columbus this June if the Kings make the playoffs and next year if they do not.
Part of the Blue Jackets' problem this season was they overrated and overpaid for Wisniewski, a good defenseman with a hard shot, but one who can't be considered in the category of the league's top-tier blue liners -- although Columbus was paying him like one at $5.5 million. However, in acquiring Johnson, the Blue Jackets get someone who can anchor their defense corps.
Along with Drew Doughty, Johnson was considered a core member of L.A.'s strong defense. Part of the silver medalist U.S. Olympic team in 2010, he's an outstanding skater, has excellent puck skills, makes a good first pass, can quarterback the power play, possesses a strong all-around game and is not shy about being physical. A native of Indiana, who played for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor and two years at the University of Michigan, the trade brings Johnson back to the Midwest.
On TSN Thurday night, former NHL coach Marc Crawford, who coached Johnson for two years in L.A., believes that Johnson could really blossom in Columbus as the undisputed to defenseman. He's played in Doughty's shadow with the Kings. Crawford also believes the Kings' problem isn't a lack of offensive talent but the defense-first style they now play. More on the trade from the NHL on TSN panel here.
Johnson is so good with the puck that former NHL GM Craig Button wondered on TSN2 Thursday night (video) if the Kings haven't created a problem for themselves by trading him, saying while they have some good forwards, they've just surrendered a defenseman who can move the puck out of their own end to them. It may mean the Kings will have to make another trade -- and their captain Dustin Brown's name has suddenly come up -- to re-acquire a strong puck-moving defenseman.
This is the second deal the Blue Jackets have made this week, having moved forward Antoine Vermette to Phoenix on Wednesday. They're stockpiling draft picks, they still have Nash to peddle (speculation on Nash's potential destination -- if he moves at all by Monday -- now centers on the Rangers and Sharks), and Howson is clearly trying to remake a team that has only been to the postseason once in franchise history.
It has been a dismal season in Columbus. A small group of frustrated fans even protested outside the arena last month calling for Howson's resignation. They have the luxury of an offseason to continue their rebuilding efforts -- "reshaping" is what Howson is calling it.
But the Kings are feeling the pressure to make the playoffs now. Not making them could cost Lombardi his job. Carter may help. At least -- freed from the losing atmosphere in Columbus and reunited with Richards -- he should be happier.
COMMENTING GUIDELINES: We encourage engaging, diverse and meaningful commentary and hope you will join the discussion. We also encourage, but do not require, that you use your real name. Please keep comments on-topic and relevant to the original post. To foster healthy discussion, we will review all comments BEFORE they are posted. We expect a basic level of civility toward each other and the subjects of this blog. Disagreements are fine, but mutual respect is a must. Comments will not be approved if they contain profanity (including the use of punctuation marks instead of letters); any abusive language or personal attacks including insults, name-calling, threats, harassment, libel and slander; hateful, racist, sexist, religious or ethnically offensive language; or efforts to promote commercial products or solicitations of any kind, including links that drive traffic to your own website. Flagrant or repeat offenders run the risk of being banned from commenting.