There are undoubtedly scores of Los Angeles Kings fans walking around today wondering where the team that defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 Tuesday night has been all season and why that group can’t show up for games a little more often. The Kings were dominant against one of the best teams in the NHL from start to finish, getting contributions from young and old and complete buy-in from the entire lineup. They were fast, they were hungry, they were on pucks, Drew Doughty looked like a Norris Trophy defenseman and Anze Kopitar was flying.
But there’s also an old saying that you are what your record says you are and by that metric, the Kings are the 31st-best team in the NHL. That likely won’t change much as the season progresses. And it seems nobody within the Kings organization is kidding themselves about this. At this point, the prospect of winning the draft lottery and getting Jack Hughes first overall is far more realistic than competing for a playoff spot. The reversal of fortunes for the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, two teams that ruled the NHL not long ago, has been stunning.
The Kings are paying a lot of money and taking up a lot of cap space for a team that might be the worst in the league. A lot. And that space is occupied by a lot of players who are not going anywhere, in large part because they have contracts that cannot be moved. That makes a full-scale teardown and rebuild difficult, if not impossible. And it’s even more difficult to do when you’re mired in salary cap hell.
There are not a ton of options here, but they do have a couple. At 29 years old and with one year remaining on his deal at $4 million, defenseman Jake Muzzin would potentially yield an interesting package of futures. The other option is Jeff Carter, a 33-year-old who has three years remaining on his deal with a cap hit of $5.3 million per year. He’s versatile enough and good enough to provide value through the rest of that deal. And the fact that he’ll actually be paid only $7 million in real money for those three seasons almost makes him an Arizona Coyote by default, doesn’t it? The Boston Bruins have been mentioned as a possible destination as well.
The only problem is Carter, who has zero no-trade protection, likes it where he is. And he’s kind of in the driver’s seat here because after this year he will have earned $51 million of the 11-year, $58-million contract he originally signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, so if he doesn’t like his new surroundings he can simply retire, which would leave the Kings with three years of cap recapture penalties of $2.75 million per season. (It’s actually a myth that the team that signs the player to the deal absorbs the cap recapture penalty. The team that most benefits from it, in this case the Kings, takes the hit.)
Unlike Muzzin, the Kings likely would not be able to command a huge return for Carter. The return for the Kings would be the cap space they would get in return. And as the Kings continue to stumble at the bottom of the standings, there is absolutely no doubt that Carter is a prime candidate to move. In fact, Carter’s agent Rick Curran told TheHockeyNews.com that he and Kings GM Rob Blake have had discussions around that possibility.
“He has told me very candidly that if he feels he has to make some changes that Jeff and a couple of other veteran players would be candidates,” Curran said. “Jeff’s preference would be to stay in L.A. and finish his career there.”
That doesn’t mean the Kings are necessarily shopping him (which they’re not at the moment) or that they will definitely deal him (but they most likely will if they can find a fit.) The sense is that if the Kings were going to trade Carter, they would sit down with him and ensure that it would be a situation where Carter would be comfortable. And that makes sense, since the Kings don’t want the cap recapture penalty and the new team would not want to make a deal for him without knowing how long he’s going to be playing there.
Carter would be a very good addition to a team looking for secondary scoring, or one looking for a veteran center who might flourish playing third-line minutes against third-line opponents. And in the final years of his deal, you could certainly envision Carter reinventing himself as a shutdown center. If the Kings can find a fit, Carter might just be the place to start dismantling a team that has experienced glory, but is facing a grim reality.