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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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Bruce Rhodes
Bruce Rhodes
3 months ago

It would be great to have Carter back, particularly at that price. Having 58 and 71 back is OK too. It would be nice to lose Zucker to Seattle. He has been disappointing and he is expensive. But maybe too expensive for the Kraken so maybe McCann? Flower had a similar meltdown in the playoffs early in his career so there is a glimmer of hope that Jarry rebounds. But there needs to be another veteran G in the mix. FA market has some interesting option and of course the best ones are way to expensive. Thanks GMJR.

Doug Ukish
Doug Ukish
3 months ago

Agree
Need net front presence, goaltending upgrade/backup and some physicallity.

Goboilersgo
Goboilersgo
3 months ago

The sad part of this article is the DeSmith angle. He could have been a real stabilizer and while he may not steal an entire series he likely would not have given away 2-3 games.

Ken T
Ken T
3 months ago
Reply to  Goboilersgo

agreed. and it’s not like we need a goalie that will steal a series – we need a perfectly average goalie. DeSmith could have been that

Steve
Steve
3 months ago

The problem to say what would have happened is specious at best. Everything changes once a goal is scored. So, we have to look past that. Was Jarry the main culprit? Absolutely. Was he thy only one? Absolutely not.
Your article is great and unfortunately we’ll be stuck with guys who are vastly over paid for their production. Good, decent players, making millions more than they should. That’s the main problem.

Eric
Eric
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Steve, if Jarry made timely stops on super soft goals, other players would have had much better stats! I supported him all season, but his playoff numbers were terrible.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve

By pretty much every metric the Pens would have won that series easily if they would have just gotten average goaltending. You’re wrong about the players being overpaid for their production as well. The core players especially are all on bargain contracts compared to similar players around the league. It would be beyond stupid to break this team up because of poor goaltending.

Hatrick Pornqvist
Hatrick Pornqvist
3 months ago

Deep and experienced down the middle but the top 3 C’s are getting pretty long in the tooth. I honestly don’t think 82 games of pushing the pace to 100mph in Sullivan’s system is the answer any more, nor has it been for a few years. Combine that with smallish but skilled forwards, and a D lacking in any real size other than Dumo, and two young goalies, and you have a recipe for playoff failure and a team getting pushed around and having no response to a big punishing team like the Isles. The place to start is a… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Hatrick Pornqvist
Eric
Eric
3 months ago

Dan, thanks for the article. Malkin could be released to play in Russia correct. That would free up a significant amount of salary cup space! The one thing that really had me concerned all year long is the diminutive lineup and the perimeter game that we played. Jake Guentzel, Bryan rust, Jared McCann, Jason Zucker, Freddy G, and even teddy bluegar, i’m almost the same physical stature. Wow they do have different styles of play they are very small and have difficulties getting to the front of the net consistently. Especially against the Islanders. They were very successful in boxing… Read more »

Ricardo58
Ricardo58
3 months ago

Hope springs eternal I believe accurately fits the argument outlined within the article. So if everything remains the same essentially except for acquiring a winger who is bigger with grit and equally adept at scoring plus retaining Jarry who is being blown up cause of his playoff performance then the core can be kept together. I wonder where funding will come from to replace Jarry if 35 isn’t part of the equation? I’m sure every other team in NHL wants Jarry now as he’s been exposed. I fully understand keeping 87 a Pen for life but I do not understand… Read more »

David Fox
David Fox
3 months ago

Two questions. The Penguins scored 16 goals in the 6-game series. Carter scored 4 of them. That leaves 12 goals scored for the rest of the team. Zucker had 2 of those 12 goals, so how did that make Zucker a bust in the playoffs? How many goals did Crosby and Guentzel score? I believe Zucker scored as many goals as those 2 players combined!

Secondly, do NFL teams not get ticket revenue from playoff games, even if they “just” make the playoffs? If not, that is news to me!

Dave Davies
Dave Davies
3 months ago

I’m not surprised to read all of the comments about the Penguins needing to get bigger and tougher, and it’s bullshit. Goaltending is the only reason that team lost, and they showed all season that they can skate rings around the big teams like Washington. I wouldn’t mind having a deterrent type player in the lineup, but they’re not going to be able to completely change their identity and still be successful with this core group. They may as well blow the whole thing up and start from scratch which would be stupid. I think some Penguins fans would rather… Read more »

frustrated penguin fan
frustrated penguin fan
3 months ago

the corp should have been broke up 2years ago

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