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Why it’s Jeff Carter Who Could Keep the Penguins Core Together

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pittsburgh penguins jeff carter

With some irony, acquiring an older player struggling through another losing season may have been the missing piece for the Pittsburgh Penguins to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang together for at least one more year, if not more. Jeff Carter changes the Pittsburgh Penguins calculus.

In the Penguins’ horribly disappointing Round One loss to the New York Islanders, Penguins skaters outperformed the New York Islanders skaters. Despite the LW ghosting and lack of production from Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, and Jason Zucker, who combined for three goals in the six-game series, the Penguins controlled play.

If not for leaky goaltending, oh what could have been.

The Penguins created more chances than any other team in the playoffs. And that has to make GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke wonder.

Carter, who will turn 37 on Jan. 1, gives the Penguins four players in their mid-30s players, who will no longer bring the return they could have two or three years ago (Crosby excluded from any trade wonderings, of course). But should the Penguins break up the band?

“They’ve been saying that for four years, right? So, I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to change anybody’s mind but I think that we did a lot of good things,” Crosby said. “You can look at every year and analyze it differently. But this year I felt like we had a good group. And we did a lot of good things. I think we easily could have made a run.”

One player who did finish and overachieve was Carter. And that’s why he changes the equation regarding the potential end of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era.

Jeff Carter had a Phil Kessel/Carl Hagelin/Bill Guerin type late-season playoff run. Carter provided more offense than a third-line center has kicked in since the famous H-B-K line propelled the Penguins to the 2016 Stanley Cup.

“It’s a great group of guys, and I think up and down the lineup, it’s a team that can definitely compete for the Stanley Cup. The hunger is still in that room. You know, that comes from the top guys,” Carter said following the Game 6 loss. “Those guys want to win…They want to get back to the top. And you can see that. There are some really disappointed guys in that room. This year was a really good opportunity for this group, and unfortunately, we came up short…”

Carter scored four goals in the series, including a big one to open Game 6. He created the play for Kasperi Kapanen to tie Game 1 late in the third period. He’s becoming a rock star in the Penguins universe. Just ask Twitter star Penguins Jesus who helped make Carter a Pittsburgh cult hero with weeks of humorously contrived quotes.

How Jeff Carter Changes the Pittsburgh Penguins Math

Carter has one more year left on his contract, and the LA Kings are paying half, so Carter will cost the Penguins about $2.6 million. That’s a bargain.

So here’s how Carter changes the calculus: He provides the Penguins hope they finally solved the third-line center role, but only for one or two more years.

It becomes much easier to enter next season with Crosby-Malkin-Carter-Blueger, knowing full well that Carter can fill the void if Malkin or Crosby is injured. The Carter advantage will last only one more year before his contract is up.

Retirement was whispered when the Penguins acquired him at the April 12 NHL trade deadline, but his reinvigoration at 35-years-old could add a couple or few years to his career.

The Penguins have something special down the middle. Malkin performed increasingly well as his knee gained strength. He had real hop in Games 5 and 6 after struggling in Games 3 and 4.

If goaltending were equal in the series, the Penguins would have won the series in five. Their advantage was that decisive. The Penguins squandered third-period leads in Games 1, 3, and 5. They blew three leads in Game 6.

Looking at that, it’s a lot easier to let it ride for one more year and — very importantly — recoup that playoff revenue. With some tinkering, perhaps the Penguins can find a LW who can handle the grinding playoff game and score on par with his assignment.

Without Carter, the Penguins situation comes to an end because hope would be wishful thinking. With Carter, there’s genuine hope for a quick turnaround and one more playoff run.

And don’t overlook that playoff revenue. In the moment of COVID crushed businesses, if the Penguins tear down their pillars, making the playoffs suddenly seems much more difficult.

If the New York Rangers get it right next season, they will be very formidable. Five Metro Division teams can make the playoffs, and the division may take all five spots, including the two wild cards.

Can the Penguins afford to take a step back? Literally or figuratively.

93-7 Host Paul Zeise quizzed me on this scenario, “but aren’t you delaying the inevitable if you don’t trade one or both (Malkin and Letang)?”

Well, yes. It would be delaying what is already much closer to the end. But that’s the point. To delay the end as long as possible, to recoup as much money as possible, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, one more moment in the sun.

The NHL greatly differs from the NFL. An NFL team has no monetary incentive to “just” make the playoffs. An NHL team has about $2 million reasons per home game.

And, there is the emotional side, too. Evgeni Malkin can block any movement, and all indications are that he wants to wrap things up in Pittsburgh whenever he chooses.

Kris Letang doesn’t quite have the same protection–he can block 10 teams. But if you watched the games with clear eyes, Letang was excellent. He was excellent all season and easily ranked among the NHL scoring leaders for defensemen.

You can’t replace what Letang brings to the Penguins for less than $9 million. Letang makes $7.5 million. This season, Letang popped for 45 points (7-38-45) and was a plus-19.

If there was a time to deal any of the core, it was two or three years ago. That ship sailed, but another ship named Jeff Carter arrived. There’s no Stanley Cup guarantee. And after the disappointing series by Tristan Jarry, the Penguins have a goalie question, too. But if the Penguins are looking short-term, aka “Win Now,” Jeff Carter changes everything and suddenly makes it all a little more possible.

In the words of Sidney Crosby, “that’s up to other people,” but Carter gives the Penguins a plausible option to keep it together, one more time.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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