LOS ANGELES – Cam Atkinson needed somewhere to crash. Early into the 2011-12 season, poised to make his NHL debut for the Blue Jackets, the rookie forward found himself temporarily homeless in the Columbus area. Then, one teammate opened his doors. “He brought me in,” Atkinson says. “Lived with him for two weeks. I’ll always remember that. I got to learn about the real Jeff Carter.”
To Carter, offering up his pad was no big deal. He was living alone then, fresh off a world-rattling trade from the Philadelphia Flyers, and felt obliged to help out the new guy. So when Atkinson’s parents came into town, Carter cooked dinner. When Atkinson wanted a ride somewhere, Carter instead handed over the keys to one of his cars. Four years apart by birth, they nonetheless became good friends. “Just clicked when we were there,” Carter says. And then, apropos of little except the mention of Atkinson, “He’s having a hell of a year.”
The same easily applies to Carter. Entering the All-Star break, the old roommates were tied for second in the NHL with 24 goals, four behind league leader Sidney Crosby, and have since reunited here as selections for this weekend’s festivities. But while Atkinson scored his more-than-deserved invitation as an injury replacement after Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin bowed out from the Metro Division squad with a lower-body injury, Carter, now in his fifth full season with the host Kings, was a no-brainer from the beginning for the Pacific. “He deserves all of the accolades he’s getting,” teammate Drew Doughty says. “He does get overlooked a lot.”
Part of this, Doughty explains, corresponds to the company Carter keeps up the middle in Los Angeles’s depth chart. “It’s hard to get noticed when you have [Anze] Kopitar,” Doughty says of the reigning Selke Trophy winner. After Kopitar got hurt in mid-November, though, Carter picked up the slack. Fresh off consecutive 62-point seasons, he’s currently posting his best per-game average (0.88) since ’08-09 and has already matched his goals production from ’15-16. He leads the NHL in both game-winners (eight) and overtime strikes (three). He tops the Kings in points (over Doughty by 15), and in goals (by nine over linemate Tanner Pearson). When Carter finds the net this season, Los Angeles has posted a 13-4-2 record; in three of those four regulation losses, the 32-year-old registered multi-goal outings.
“It’s been going well,” Carter says. “With Tanner and Tyler [Toffoli], whichever one I’m playing with, we just all seem to click together. A lot of rush stuff. A lot of pucks laying around, cleaning them up. If we can keep it going, we’ll see.”
Indeed, Carter has been feasting in a bevy of ways. Only halfway through an 11-year deal annually worth $5.27 million, he has proven adept at sweeping up loose change on the power play, often tapping in backdoor passes or punching back rebounds. At even strength, on the other hand, the 6-foot-4 right-handed pivot is more likely to carry the puck with speed through the neutral zone before unleashing one of the league’s most vicious wrist shots. His 20th goal came in such fashion, on New Years’ Eve against Pacific Division-rival San Jose.
“It’s quick,” says Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who had little chance that night as Carter’s shot frisbeed into the top shelf, blocker side. ‘It doesn’t take much. It seems like he barely moves hands and it’s off his stick and coming at you. That’s the biggest thing: It’s just a quick flick of the wrist. He shoots it before you know it’s coming.”
“I try to watch it and figure it out,” Doughty says, “but I can’t.”
Carter’s laid-back personality doesn’t exactly help with the whole getting-recognized thing, either. “He’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s kind of boring,” says his agent, Rick Curran. Saturday afternoon, while his peers arrived at media day aboard the hotel elevators in downtown Los Angeles, Carter made the usual half-hour drive from the home he owns near the Kings’ practice facility. His first—and until this season, only—All-Star Game appearance came as a 24-year-old in ’09. Now, he claims a quiet beachside life near the Kings’ practice facility, where he lives with his wife, Megan, and newborn child, Caden. “You’re young, it’s all a blur,” Carter says of the ’09 experience. “It’s nice to actually take one in here, especially in L.A.”
When Philadelphia shipped Carter away at the 2011 draft, Curran remembers his client feeling blindsided: “The only down and disappointing time he ever had.” It was understandable; eight months prior, Carter had signed that whopper of an extension, thinking "he was going to be a Flyer for his whole career,” Curran says. Frustrated with the rebuilding Blue Jackets, who changed coaches midyear and eventually finished dead-last in the NHL, Carter only logged 39 games in Columbus before finding his way to Los Angeles in February. (“I know when he comes to Columbus he might get booed a little bit,” Atkinson says, but as for that aforementioned real Jeff Carter? "Just a good, good guy. That’s what good teammates do, they bring in younger guys and show them the way.")
Here in Hollywood, the pace seems to suit Carter just fine. “You’re a normal person,” he says. “You can go out for dinner, lunch, walk around, hang out on the beach. We live in a small community so everybody knows everybody, but they just treat me like a normal person. You can live a normal life. The setup we’ve got is pretty awesome. Didn’t take me long to fall in love with it here.”