LOS ANGELES — The best proof of the trust Jeff Carter has earned in his coaches is on his wings.
To Carter’s left: 21-year-old Tanner Pearson. To his right: Tyler Toffoli, who turned 22 two months ago.
“That’s a perfect role model for them,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said of Carter.
Two NHL organizations have considered Carter expendable. On Feb. 23, 2012, Columbus sent him to Los Angeles for Jack Johnson and a first-round pick. The Blue Jackets shipped Carter out just eight months after the Flyers had sent him away for Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick, and a third-rounder.
Carter’s biggest move was out of Philadelphia. The Flyers picked Carter 11th overall in 2003, and they once considered him and Mike Richards cornerstone players. But following a four-and-out gurgle against the Bruins in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals, general manager Paul Holmgren aired out the dressing room. Carter and Richards were gone.
Now, Carter is untouchable.
The 29-year-old belongs to Los Angeles’s second tier of go-to players under Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. The second-line center was always a dangerous scorer in Philadelphia. In 2008-09, he ripped up the league with 46 goals and 38 assists.
During his final season with the Flyers, Carter scored 36 goals and had 30 assists. He dressed for only two of the four games against the Bruins because of a knee injury.
But Carter was never the three-zone force he has become in LA.
In Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the Kings fell behind Chicago in the first period, 2-0. Had the Blackhawks taken that two-goal lead into the second, they could have made things very uncomfortable for the Kings.
But Carter triggered a rally. He scored LA’s first goal with 3½ minutes left in the first. But only after he made an important defensive play.
Carter, playing deep in the LA zone, blocked Johnny Oduya’s point shot. Carter, Toffoli, and Dustin Brown immediately went on the attack against defensemen Oduya and Brent Seabrook. As Brown carried the puck down the left wing, Carter recognized that Oduya was drifting away from the slot.
Carter punched the turbos and accelerated toward the net. Brown snapped a shot on goal. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford should have gloved the shot. Instead, Crawford burped it into the air. Carter was in the perfect spot to swat home the puck and give the Kings life.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Carter’s grunt work created another LA goal. For the second straight game, the Kings allowed the first two goals. Benoit Pouliot and Carl Hagelin gave the Rangers a 2-0 first-period lead.
Carter made sure the lead didn’t stand up.
He started by taking a sharp-angle shot on goal. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped the puck. But Carter stayed in the zone long enough to recover the puck after Derek Stepan turned it over.
Carter, who has one of the game’s longest reaches, used his stick and body to protect the puck from Anton Stralman along the end boards. Carter then set up Kyle Clifford in front for the Kings’ first strike.
Carter finished Game 1 with 20:07 of ice time, trailing only Kopitar (21:17) among LA forwards. Carter attempted a team-high seven shots. Four landed on goal. He won 7 of 11 faceoffs and connected on four hits. It was a monstrous game from a formerly complementary player.
“He’s sort of like Mike,” said Sutter, comparing Carter to Richards. “They just win. You can count on them all the time. Really great practice player. Well-trained guy. Takes care of himself.”
Carter scored 27 goals and had 23 assists in 72 regular-season games. His 0.69 points-per-game output was off the pace he set with the Flyers between 2008 and 2011 (1.02, 0.82, 0.83). But Carter is a better player now than he ever was in Philadelphia.
He’s a regular penalty killer. He’s a matchup center in defensive situations. He regularly goes to the front of the net.
Carter’s 200-foot game reflects how Sutter has succeeded where Ken Hitchcock, John Stevens, Peter Laviolette, and Scott Arniel fell short. It’s also a credit to Carter for growing as a player and accepting his role as a two-way center, not just an offensive force.
In Game 1, the Rangers learned the difficulty of playing two three-zone pivots. In the first period, when his teammates weren’t playing with pace, Carter controlled the puck and made plays. By the third, Carter and Kopitar were humming. It was no coincidence that Stepan and Brad Richards, New York’s top two centers, didn’t play with the puck enough.
The Rangers bested Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the second round. Kopitar and Carter are not as offensively explosive as the Pittsburgh pivots. But they’re better two-way centers.
“They’ve got a real strong group down the middle,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “A lot of their plays start with faceoffs, low plays, and through the neutral zone. Our guys need to manage the puck well. When we manage the puck better, we can play a faster game.”
Hockey Canada recognized Carter’s game. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the Canadian management team tapped Carter for the 2014 Olympics over former Philadelphia teammate Claude Giroux, Joe Thornton, Tyler Seguin, Eric Staal, and Jason Spezza. They classified Carter as the most well-rounded center — one who could also play right wing — of the group.
Carter came back from Sochi with gold. Now he’s chasing his second Cup in three years.
“For us, the division title or Western Conference championship doesn’t mean too much if you don’t get the ultimate goal,” Carter said. “We come in every year at training camp focused on winning the Stanley Cup.”