Carter to Kings: The Last, Best Shot for an Overpriced Center and Two GMs

There are still a few days left in the NHL’s trading window, but I’d like to take a minute to analyze the highest profile deal yet — “the Jeff Carter trade.”
If you’re reading this, then by now you know that center Jeff Carter has been traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round pick in either 2012 or ’13.
Contrary to where most people want to start, let’s look at this deal for the Columbus Blue Jackets first. I think this is a smart move for the Jackets, though I acknowledge that time will tell whether this is a good move.
The Move for Columbus

As I and some other people wrote in the summer, the trade acquisition of Carter made very little sense for Columbus thanks to the overpriced and over-termed (11 years, $58 million) contract that Philadelphia had just signed the player to seven months prior. The argument everyone else was making was that Jackets’ star winger Rick Nash finally had a true number one center to play with, and also that the long-term investment (paired with the acquisition of James Wisniewski’s rights and subsequent five-year deal the team gave him) signified the Blue Jackets’ intent on building a winner.

I understood the argument, but I’m a value guy, and the fact is there is not and probably never will be value in Jeff Carter’s salary cap hit. The only way Carter’s $5.27 million annual cap hit makes any sense is if over the next few years the salary cap is raised significantly and individual player salaries start going through the roof. Fat chance of that happening, since we are almost certainly going to see a lockout this summer by the owners specifically designed to achieve the opposite result.
Since Carter’s contract made him undesirable, I think it was a smart move for Columbus to move him off the books and free up some more cap space (for the next decade, remember). The team sucks on defense and mostly in net, so to have a “goal scorer” like Carter doesn’t really help you unless he makes you an elite offense. The Jackets’ 27th-best goals per game figure quashes any semi-argument that could have been made there.
The man that was sent the other way, Johnson, also carries a somewhat hefty contract, but it’s smaller and shorter than Carter’s, and in that sense Columbus benefits from the deal. Johnson’s actual impact on a hockey team’s record has been, in my opinion, greatly overstated, but if the expectation is for him to be a second-pairing guy then I think he can fill that role well enough. One problem with this rational expectation is that Columbus might need him to be a top-two blue liner, but there is at least hope that David Savard and/or John Moore, both selected in the 2009 entry draft, may pan out to be good enough top-four defensemen to compliment Wiz and Johnson. Both rookies are currently with the Jackets, although it is unclear to me how importing Johnson will affect the look of the blue line for the rest of this season. I would suspect it might not matter: this is clearly a club looking forward to next year and beyond.
Another obvious hinge that will determine whether this trade was a good move for Columbus is what happens with that conditional first-round pick. If the Kings miss the playoffs this year, then Columbus will get L.A.’s top pick in 2013. If the Kings hold on and make it into this spring’s top eight in the Western Conference, then the Jackets will get to choose whether they want that first rounder this summer or next. It would be silly to try to project how this unidentified subject’s career will pan out versus Carter’s, so let’s make a note of the existence of the pick and move on.
The Move for Los Angeles

For Los Angeles, I guess the move is alright if we’re looking at the Kings as a Stanley Cup contender in the medium term. While I tend to bash Carter based on his performance versus his contract figures, the guy is inconsistently productive. I mean that as a semi-compliment. He has some upside, which I’ve seen a few times this season in Columbus. But far more often Carter has little impact on a game, and that’s where I hate him as a $5.27 million player.
The move is also alright enough if we’re looking at the price the Kings paid. Most of the talk was that Columbus would trade Carter if they could get their next starting goalie out of the deal. Well, Carter’s in Hollywood now, and yet, so is Jonathan Bernier. If and when the Kings finally trade Bernier, they probably will be able to get that first-round pick back (or at least a second and possibly a roster player) anyway.
Losing Johnson doesn’t really hurt the Kings’ hope for a playoff run because they play a defensive style to begin with, and Johnson’s game is not conducive to keeping the puck out of his own net. In 343 career NHL games, all with the Kings, Johnson is a cool minus-90. You can bring up the fact that he plays on the power play, and yes that’s true, but dude, he’s minus-90. That includes a minus figure every single season he’s been a professional, which may mean he’ll transition seamlessly to Columbus’ playing style. Hey-O!
Carter’s move to L.A. is interesting on a personal level in two ways. First, it was Rick Nash who was supposedly on the Kings’ wish list. The idea was that overused cliché, “imagine if Nash had a center like Anze Kopitar,” and/or “imagine if Kopitar had a wing like Nash!” These “imagine the partnership” pre-trade hypotheticals are getting more tired and less reputable, since we heard the exact same assertions after Columbus traded for Carter (to pair with Nash) in the first place.
The second human element that makes this move familiar for L.A. is that Carter is now reunited with his parter in ran-out-of-Philly-dom, Mike Richards. With the top line of Kopitar, Justin Williams and team captain Dustin Brown playing pretty well together (given L.A.’s defensively-skewed style), it would be normal to assume that Carter will skate on the second line with Richards. Maybe the duo can rekindle the fire that helped them lead the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. I would think not (this year anyway), since Chris Pronger is not walking through that door…
GMs Gripping: Howson & Lombardi Had to Make This Trade

Worth noting is the GM factor as well. It’s no secret that Scott Howson has done a pretty bad job of building that Columbus roster, as evidenced by their 27th-best offense and 29th-best defense this season. Perhaps what’s worse was sticking it out with head coach Scott Arniel as long as he did. It’s not that I’m an advocate of firing coaches quickly, but Arniel was eventually relieved of his head coaching duties, and only after division rival St. Louis scooped up Ken Hitchcock. Hitch has led the previously toiling Blues to within contention for the conference’s top seed. Prior to taking that job, he was just chilling in the Blue Jackets’ organization. Hiding right there, in plain sight. Howson did not have the wherewithal to make the obvious hire, and because of that he is still on the hottest of seats. Luckily for him, he got a do-over for that rather funny gaffe of trading for Carter’s contract in the first place.
The Kings, like the Blue Jackets and so many other teams this season, are also working under their second head coach of 2011-12. The old saying goes, “if you can’t change the players, change the coach.” That’s what L.A. general manager Dean Lombardi did when he brought Darryl Sutter in to replace Terry Murray. Now an attention grabbing player change has been made. If neither move works, it would logically follow that maybe the GM would be the next to go. Lombardi insists that this trade is for both the short-term and the long-term, but only the naive would not consider Lombardi’s knowledge that there might not be a “long-term” for him. Not in Los Angeles, anyway.
These moves, when analyzed as a pair of departures and arrivals, almost had to be made by the respective GMs. How they pan out may not be known until after those GMs are long gone; alternatively, this trade may be the catalyst for a very long extension for either Lombardi or Howson. Only time will tell, but the clock is already ticking louder than the promo for 60 Minutes.
The Inverse Relationship Between Contract Figures and Future Stanley Cup Shots

The last item worth mentioning for me is how taking too much can ultimately backfire. It’s a theme driven home to most of us from a young age: share, do not take more than you need or deserve, you reap what you sow, etc., etc. While I think Los Angeles is a pretty fly destination, especially for a dude with highlighted hair, the fact that Carter has been traded twice in the fifteen-and-a-half months since he signed that ridiculously inflated contract with Philadelphia only goes to show that in a league with a salary cap, it’s not all florets and no chunks to sign for way more money and years than your play warrants.
Wade Redden, Alexei Yashin, Cristobal Huet and others have been effectively blackballed from the NHL courtesy of the fact that they are incapable of contributing anywhere near the level of their overpriced contracts. Carter is still just 27 years old, but if he isn’t careful and doesn’t put it together soon, he could find himself the next victim of his own greed. I’m not saying that anybody in their right mind would turn down the offer the Flyers made to Carter, but what I am saying is that any player must understand that by agreeing to carry such a high cap hit for such a long time, said player has probably lost the comfort of just getting by. If you can’t give a contender a realistic hope at a championship, then you will play for a crap team. If you can’t give a crap team anything, then you will have only your youth as a selling point. Once that’s gone, so are you. 
Carter’s situation seems specifically like a good one now, but he’s lucky he’s still young enough to have a decent suitor. Life is give and take, and when an owner gives a player a lot of money for a long time, the owners can also essentially take away that player’s opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup. Once it’s determined that a player’s contract is too high, that player becomes lucky to just be fodder for those teams chasing the cap floor. Carter has what might be his last best opportunity to prove that he can play up to his contract for a competitive squad. Let’s see how he plays this one.

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