On Wednesday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves a bargain. GM Ron Hextall and the team signed Jeff Carter to a two-year deal with a $3.125 million cap hit. Excuse me, they signed Big Jeff Carter to a new contract.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Carter has connected with the fan base like few others. His immediate cult following was akin to Bill Guerin’s arrival in 2009. Where talk of retirement grew at the end of his waning tenure with the LA Kings, optimism grew in Pittsburgh.
Carter, 37, hit the ground running. Or hit the ice skating? In his first 14 games with the Penguins, Jeff Carter scored nine goals, including a four-goal game against Buffalo last April. He also had five points (4-1-5) in six playoff games.
He was the best Penguins third-line center since Nick Bonino raised the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup, and Carter is significantly better–411 career goals highlight his elevated pedigree. Carter is ninth among active players with 278 even-strength goals. He has two All-Star Game appearances and two Stanley Cups.
A third Stanley Cup isn’t out of the question.
Two weeks ago, Carter signaled his intention to keep drinking from the fountain of youth.
“I think the trade’s worked out great for me,” he said. “I feel like it’s given me another boost in my career and probably prolonged it a few more years, hopefully.”
This season, Carter filled the significant portion of Evgeni Malkin’s absence. And Carter was sometimes part of the Penguins penalty kill. In 36 games, he has 26 points (12-14-26).
After Carter signed the new contract, which is about a $2 million annual pay cut, Hextall referenced his leadership and versatility. Carter can fill the top-six center role, play wing, and he appears to be pretty popular with teammates, too.
“Jeff’s experience and versatility have made him a valuable addition to our team,” said Penguins general manager Ron Hextall. “In addition to his on-ice contributions, his team-first attitude has made him a leader inside our locker room, and we are happy to have him under contract for two more years.”
What does the Jeff Carter Contract Mean?
First, the obvious. The Pittsburgh Penguins fortified their center position with a popular veteran. The situation is a 180-degree turn, and everything the Penguins organization hoped when it acquired Derrick Brassard near the 2018 NHL trade deadline.
Continuing with the obvious, Malkin has been injury-prone. The Penguins now have three centers capable of reliable scoring. The team now has a top-shelf third-line center and a second center as needed.
They could also deploy Carter higher in the lineup on a more full-time basis if the Penguins organization does not come to an agreement with Malkin. Carter becomes a short-term and multi-year insurance policy that allows the Penguins to maintain a level of play and competitiveness, with or without Malkin.
A new contract also provides stability now and some financial certainty for next season. Maybe the deal was a year longer than some fans wanted, but the contract was a bargain for the Penguins. Top third-line centers cost well over $4 million, sometimes $5 million. The Penguins likely got the team-friendly AAV by dishing the second year.
The Carter contract means the Penguins have allocated less than market value on a high-end third-line center. Spending less on one area allows them to spend more on another.
Side note, Guerin was also 39-years-old at the end of his Penguins career.
What the Jeff Carter Deal Doesn’t Mean
There was an immediate assumption the contract means the Penguins will not “rebuild” for two more years. However, the contract has no direct bearing on anyone else.
The deal might signal Hextall’s desire to keep the core together–Hextall could be so impressed by the Penguins core players that this was the first salvo in locking up Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and maybe even Bryan Rust.
But the contract could also mean Hextall bought an insurance policy against losing Malkin. First and second-line centers are not easy to find. A top-six center costs a top prospect, a first-round pick, and substantial value on the NHL trade market.
Malkin laughed off any contract matters when PHN asked if not having a new contract was a consideration during his rehab from right knee surgery.
“I’m like a pretty rich guy,” he retorted to laughter from all sides.
While Malkin downplayed money, now or in the future, signing a 37-year-old does not guarantee Malkin’s future. That decision is separate.
Jeff Carter has 37 points, including 21 goals in just 50 games with the Penguins. Carter took a sizeable pay cut to get a deal done and stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perhaps he won’t be the last to do so.