By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Jeff Carter never wanted to leave Philadelphia. He was shocked last June when the Flyers shipped him to the Columbus Blue Jackets, while sending his buddy Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings the very same day.
He had a right to be upset. He and Richards had made long-term commitments to the only NHL team they had ever known, dreaming of raising Cups together in the City of Brotherly Love (in more ways than one), only to have the Flyers split them up and send them on their separate ways before their no-trade clauses kicked in.
But there is no going back to Philly. There never was. And this is the next best thing, the best second (or third) chance he could possibly ask for. He is being reunited with Richards, now that the Kings have acquired him from Columbus for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round draft pick, pending physicals.
He is going to a team that might as well be Philly West, for all its Flyers connections. He is going to a team with talent that desperately needs his scoring touch, to a place where he can win and be a major contributor. He is going to a group of people who know him well and think he's worth the risk – despite all the gossip about the way he and Richards used to party, despite the way he sulked into Columbus, despite the $58 million contract that stretches to 2022.
In short, he can't screw this up. He can't slip back into bad habits with his buddy. He has to move on the way he didn't in Columbus, and he has to mature into the man and the player he can be.
"I do think that given our culture with TMZ and things, I think this stuff can get a little exaggerated," said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi. "But that said, I do think that athletes and professionals all go through a phase, just like we did in college, and you've got to grow up and learn from it."
Lombardi recognizes this is a risk. Actually, he called it a "huge risk" simply because he's trusting a player "is going to be committed to being the best he can be despite financial security."
But he has been looking for scoring help for a long time, and he decided to take a risk on Richards when he acquired him last summer – despite the same gossip about the partying, despite a similar contract. Richards is on a $69 million deal that stretches to 2020.
Lombardi was a pro scout with the Flyers when Carter and Richards rose through the Flyers' system and broke into the NHL together. His assistant GM is former Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall. One of his assistant coaches is a former Flyers head coach, John Stevens. He has added other former Flyers players in the past.
Even after he added Richards, Lombardi felt he still needed another top-six forward. He recruited the top unrestricted free agent on the market, Brad Richards, but lost out to the New York Rangers. He figured the Kings would rank somewhere around 15th in the NHL offensively, maybe 20th. He never figured they would be 30th – dead last.
But that's where they were when he fired coach Terry Murray (another former Flyers coach) in December, and that's where they have stayed under new coach Darryl Sutter. Their secondary scoring has broken down. Their top-end scoring hasn't come close to making up for it. The main reason the Kings were eighth in the Western Conference entering Thursday night's action was the stellar play of goaltender Jonathan Quick.
"This kind of snowballed on us," Lombardi said. "Having talked to so many hockey people about this, it's almost psychological now. … It's just been beating us up mentally. I think that's part of it and they're going to have to fight their way through."
Lombardi had to do something, and the best two players available were in Columbus – Carter and Rick Nash. He said Jackets GM Scott Howson never told him whether he was on Nash's list of teams for which he might waive his no-movement clause, and asked if Nash ever was realistic, given the high asking price, he brushed it off.
"Gee, I don’t know," he said. "We're more than satisfied with Jeff."
He said the Carter talks heated up about a week ago. Since last Wednesday, the Kings have gone 0-3-1 – scoring only one goal in each of those regulation losses.
He could afford to give up Johnson because the Kings don't give up many goals and are deep on the blue line. Talented prospect Slava Voynov is already on his way up from the minors.
The first-round pick? The risk? Well, if it all works out, he's getting a 27-year-old who has scored as many as 46 goals and whose salary-cap hit of $5.272 million is reasonable for that production level.
"So that's your tradeoff," Lombardi said.
Carter and Richards both have dealt with injuries and down seasons since leaving Philly. Carter has 15 goals in 39 games. Richards has 14 in 53. But they went to the Stanley Cup final together as recently as 2010. It's not like a team can't win with them, for all that has been said about them.
Lombardi gave what he called a "speech on human nature." He said he thought some of the whispers, rumors and reports about Carter and Richards' off-ice exploits "really got blown out of proportion." He asked the journalists on a conference call if anyone had taken pictures of them when they went out on Friday and Saturday nights in college.
"Having even done the research before we got Mike Richards, I'm going, 'Oh, well,' " Lombardi said. "I mean, how many of us are in position to throw stones? We just never were celebrity enough where people wanted to take pictures of us."
Of course, most of us are not celebrities. Many of us had plenty of fun in college and pictures would never have been a problem. We aren't on $58 million contracts, either.
As one NHL executive told me recently, the Flyers aren't stupid. They're a smart, successful franchise that does things for a reason. When they trade two cornerstone pieces in one day – even if they are clearing salary-cap space for free-agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, even if they have a young stud at center in Claude Giroux – it raises a red flag.
And the way Carter handled the trade – disappearing for days afterward, needing Jackets officials to come visit him, being less than enthusiastic in his new home – turned off people in Columbus and beyond, for good reason.
But Lombardi has a point.
"Just because they're great athletes doesn't mean all of a sudden they're not human beings, and I think we have to recognize that particularly in this day and age when we give them so much so early," he said. "There's a growth process here that doesn't start as soon as you give a kid $50 million. It actually hurts that process, and you're just hoping these are good people that are brought up the right way.
"Just like all of us when we were at that stage of our lives, we weren't exactly all choir boys. So I think some of it is exaggerated. I think knowing these kids as people, deep down, I think they are your classic Canadian boys who dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and that will never leave them. Get some stuff out of your system. You'll get back on track."
It's time for Carter to get back on track – for the man who believed in him, for the team that traded for him, for the company that is investing in him and, if that's not enough, for himself.