ANAHEIM — Jeff Carter is accepting his new role, at least putting on a good face, as reality lands heavy regarding his future in the Penguins lineup.
One doesn’t need to rehash Carter’s performance for the first eight games. Simply, the performance wasn’t good enough. Of the several line changes coach Mike Sullivan made, the coach said the message was, “We’re not satisfied (with team performance).”
By scratching Carter on Saturday in San Jose, Sullivan delivered Carter’s first-ever healthy scratch. It’s been 1258 games in the NHL and 463 goals, but the signs have been clear for some time.
Carter is 38 years old. As Sullivan and Carter spoke with the small group of reporters, including PHN, in the narrow concrete block hallways of the Anaheim Ducks practice facility in nearby Irvine, the foreshadowing hung in the air like an obvious and unpleasant truth unspoken.
Sullivan nodded as he spoke. The platitudes or cliches melted away as he delivered a human answer. Sullivan’s respect for Carter was abundantly obvious despite Sullivan’s near obligation to remove Carter from the Penguins lineup.
Carter didn’t speak of his next opportunity until asked. He didn’t speak of the future and trying harder or finding his game. It was an acquiescence to the obvious, however unstated.
Sullivan struck a conciliatory tone even as he praised the fourth line’s performance.
“Yeah, it is (a tough part about coaching). We have so much respect for ‘Carts.’ And, you look at his body of work in this league — he’s knocking on the door to the Hall of Fame with what he’s accomplished as a player,” Sullivan said. “He’s a multiple (time) Stanley Cup champion. He’s scored an awful lot of goals in this league, and he’s been such a great player in the game for so long. Those are unique circumstances.
“They’re never easy conversations, regardless of who the player is … And those are hard conversations that the coaches have to make. And unfortunately, that’s part of the job. But that one in particular was a real difficult one for me.”
Even Carter recognized the production of the Penguins’ fourth line without him.
“I want to be out there, I want to play, but I understand my situation,” Carter said. “So I come in (with) a smile on my face. Work hard and, you know, day-to-day.”
Jeff Carter Future
If you read between the lines of Sullivan’s comments, the body language and tone said a little bit more. While Sullivan later tried to soften the situation, mentioning that Carter would play in some games, sometimes he would not. However, Sullivan seemed to indicate the pair had in-depth conversations. Those usually go beyond just letting a player know he’s scratched.
Bigger conversations are reserved for bigger issues.
Sullivan has never shared, and probably never will, the contents of his private conversations with players. Still, the inference was Carter will be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.
There was a heaviness to the comments.
“Carts and I had a real good talk before that decision was made … I think he’s a guy that in the particular stage (of his career), he has so much respect from the room, his teammates, his coaching staff,” said Sullivan. “He has a wealth of experience in all different facets of the game. He plays an important leadership role on our team. He’s he’s really good with the younger players … and I think he’s valuing that role and being the mentor.’
It seemed significant Sullivan referenced the Hall of Fame, which is something you mention for a player at the end.
Jeff Carter, Somber & Light-Hearted
For his part, Carter was oddly accepting of the situation. Perhaps even he realizes there is a step missing from his stride, production that is missing from the scoresheet, and his game bears little resemblance to the player who quickly piled up goals after the Penguins acquired him before the 2021 NHL trade deadline.
“You have to (have fun). I’m not going to come in, mope around, and be an old grumpy guy,” said Carter. “It’s like, come in and have fun, and I’ll try to keep it light the room and get the boys going.”
The Penguins senior statesman spoke of keeping his spirits up and helping his teammates as able but also not interfering. The TV videos from Saturday showed Carter congratulating teammates after their big 10-2 win over San Jose.
The Penguins’ lineup of 12 forwards that began the season is now 13, with the inclusion of Vinnie Hinostroza, who got the recall from the AHL after the team placed backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, is also an NHL veteran. He has 361 NHL games on his resume, including Saturday, when he scored a goal and added an assist.
It was the most productive the Penguins’ fourth line has been this season, and the first two goals it’s scored. We’ll get a good look at the new line against better competition on Tuesday and Thursday when the Penguins play the Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings.
However unsaid the truth was, it doesn’t seem the plan is to put Carter back into the lineup any time soon, nor does it seem Carter is expecting it.