When Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter were NHL rookies in 2005-06, on opposite sides of what already long had been a nasty rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, it might have been tough to imagine the conversation they had Tuesday.
“Sid and I were talking about that this morning, just the battles that we had when we first came into the league,” Carter said Tuesday, about 36 hours after the Penguins acquired him in a trade with Los Angeles for two conditional draft picks.
Perhaps any animosity has faded over the years, but Carter’s impression of his former cross-state arch enemies and now his teammates is highly favorable.
“I always had a lot of respect for the veteran guys that are here that I played against (while with Philadelphia) – Sid and (Evgeni) Malkin and (Kris) Letang and those guys – and just happy to be able to suit up with them now,” Carter said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Carter, 36, was drafted 11th overall by the Flyers in 2003 and spent his first six seasons playing for them. In 2008-09, Carter had a career-best 46 goals and 84 points for the Flyers. Of course, that season held some significance for the Penguins, too. (Hint: That big, shiny trophy spent a bit of time in Pittsburgh the following offseason.)
As fate would have it, Carter is expected to log his first game with the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday against – you guessed it – the Flyers.
He’s expected to play center among line combinations that might become apparent during his first practice with his new team Wednesday. Carter arrived but the Penguins opted to cancel practice in favor of an off-ice workout Tuesday after many in the organization got COVID-19 vaccines on Monday.
Carter is looking forward to playing for and against teams that aren’t in the West Division. For this condensed, pandemic-altered season, teams are only playing within their division.
“The schedule’s crazy,” Carter said. “I feel like I’ve played Anaheim and Vegas the whole year. It’s kind of refreshing to get out there on Thursday against the Flyers, get out there, play some new teams.
“It will be nice to have some fans in the stands, too. We haven’t had any in LA.”
Carter Seen As Middle Man
Carter’s versatility was one of the things that made him attractive to the Penguins. General manager Ron Hextall, formerly an executive with the Flyers and Kings, knew all about that.
“Basically my whole career we’ve kind of followed each other around,” Carter said. “It’s always nice when you’re going to a new place to have some familiar faces. I’ve known Hexy for a long time. We have a really good relationship. I was able to see him (Tuesday) morning and chat a bit.”
It’s coach Mike Sullivan and his staff who will decide how to deploy Carter, though. Originally a center who was used more recently at right wing with Los Angeles, Carter is expected to start out in the middle because of injuries the Penguins are dealing with.
“There will be an exploratory process here. … I think our first inclination is to try Jeff at the center position, specifically because we think we need that at this particular point in time given the circumstance of the injuries,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan offered an update on those injured players, all forwards.
Freddy Gaudreau is the latest to go on the shelf and is out on a week-to-week basis, Sullivan said. Evgeni Malkin is still skating separately from the team “and is continuing his progress,” the coach said. Kasperi Kapanen “skated (Tuesday) morning for the first time. We’ll see how he responds to that, but certainly that’s encouraging from Kappy’s standpoint,” Sullivan said.
Brandon Tanev, who is not expected back before the end of the regular season, is doing off-ice rehab.
Carter is fine with playing either spot.
“I can play both. I’m comfortable with both,” he said, adding, “My game’s pretty simple. I’m a straight-lines (guy), try to use my speed and get pucks to the net whenever I can. It’s a pretty simple game for me.”
Sullivan said Carter also probably will be used in some capacity on the power play and penalty kill.
At 6 feet 3, Carter brings some of the size that Penguins management craved, without sacrificing skating proficiency.
“I think it’s great that we can add some size to our group. … It helps us in a number of different ways – it helps us to be harder to play against, it should help us to be stronger on pucks,” Sullivan said.
“We think Jeff’s going to fit into this team and enhance the group in a seamless way. He’s a great teammate. He’s a real good person. He has a great track record of being a proven performer in this league both in the regular season and in the playoffs.”
Sullivan continued to gush.
“We’re obviously thrilled to add Jeff to our group here,” he said. “He’s a real good player. He’s a proven player. He’s a Stanley Cup champion. I think he can play the kind of game that we’re trying to play here in Pittsburgh. He has a great shot. He has versatility to his game. He can play center; he can play the wing position.
“We really think he’s going to add to this group in such a positive way.”
He Loved LA
Carter spent the past nine-plus seasons with the Kings. He won two Stanley Cups. He went from prime-of-his-career core player to something a bit less glamorous.
“I think my role in LA changed in the last couple years where I moved from center to wing and was kind of put more in a mentor role and had to play with a lot of young guys and helped them along,” he said. “I actually really enjoyed that. It was a fun time for me.”
It would probably be odd not to have fond memories of an organization after helping to win two Stanley Cups, and that experience is another thing that the Penguins like about Carter.
“I think it means a lot that Jeff’s a guy that’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion, and so he understands what it takes with personal experience having gone through it,” said Sullivan, who coached the Penguins to their most recent Cup championships, in 2016 and 2017.
“I think it means a lot to players. I think he’s going to add another level of leadership to our group that we think is a strength of our team, the leadership that we have.
“But the fact that he’s a Stanley Cup champion himself, he understands what it takes to win, he has that personal experience, I think means a lot to our team. I just think it brings a certain level of credibility when he walks into our room.”
‘As Good A Shot As Anybody’
The Kings are no longer perennial Cup contenders. Since they last won in 2014, they have lost in the first round of the playoffs twice and missed the playoffs four times, including the past two years.
They face a battle to get back to the postseason this year.
The Penguins have the NHL’s longest active streak of playoff appearances, 14 straight years, although they were dumped in the first round the past two postseasons.
At the moment, they are in third place in the East, two points out of first, and have been playing well enough over the past several weeks to again be widely considered, maybe not favorites, but contenders.
Carter certainly thinks so.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said. “You look at this team, and they’re right in the mix. They have as good a shot as anybody to compete this year.
“I’m excited to get going, getting to know everybody here and looking forward to practice (Wednesday). I can’t wait to get back to the playoffs and make a run at it. Hopefully, we can get it done.
“Anytime you have Sid and Malkin here and the core that they have here with some of those complementary players, you’re going to have a chance to win every season. Wherever I fit in here – which line or which role, whatever it might be – I’m just looking forward to getting out there and helping.”
Carter isn’t a rental. He is signed through next season. Asked if he planned to honor that contract, he laughed.
“Yes,” he said. “I will be playing next season.”