LOS ANGELES — Jeff Carter lifted the Stanley Cup twice wearing the silver and black of the Los Angeles Kings, first in 2012, then again in 2014. Those Kings teams had heavyweight battles with the three-time Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks.
Those two teams dominated the NHL for five years between the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cup victories.
Carter, whose career wound through Philadelphia and briefly Columbus, found its greatest success in LA, where he was one of the backbones of those two championship teams. However, the 38-year-old has recently found himself a healthy scratch with the Penguins as his career winds toward its conclusion.
Carter played parts of 10 seasons with LA until former Penguins GM Ron Hextall acquired him before the 2021 NHL trade deadline. Carter burst onto the scene with the Penguins, rejuvenating his career that seemed to be ending as his place in the Kings’ lineup was slipping.
Carter became “Big Jeff Carter” with the Penguins, scoring nine goals in his first 14 games. However, age is catching Carter, and Thursday will likely be a sentimental moment for one of the Penguins’ team leaders.
Serendipity and coach Mike Sullivan will put Carter back in the lineup Thursday. Because Tristan Jarry’s injury was a best-case scenario it will not require a stay on IR. The Penguins sent Vinnie Hinostroza, who had taken Carter’s spot in the lineup, back to the WBS Penguins to clear cap space for goalie Joel Blomqvist to backup Magnus Hellberg, at least for Thursday night.
Jeff Carter was not available for comment Thursday, but coach Mike Sullivan agreed it would be a big moment for Carter, not only getting back in the lineup but doing so in LA, where a statue of former Kings captain Dustin Brown hoisting one of those Stanley Cup greets fans.
“That’s correct (it’s a good moment to put him in the lineup). And I think it’s a great opportunity for (Carter),” Sullivan said. “I think any time you have an opportunity to play against one of your former teams, I think it adds a little something special to a player. And I’m sure it’ll be a big one for Carts in that regard. Yeah. And as I’ve said to you guys, he’s a great teammate, and his leadership has been invaluable to this group. We know he’ll give our guys a big boost.”
Barring a trade or a career revival that earns Carter a new contract for next season, Thursday will be Carter’s last game in LA, where he played 580 games, scored 191 goals, and, of course, earned two Stanley Cup rings.
Saturday against the San Jose Sharks was the first time in Carter’s career that he was a healthy scratch. Tuesday in Anaheim was the second. Coaches are usually loathe to make lineup changes after wins, especially for a player who was struggling to contribute. But this situation is a bit different.
Carter faced the media on Monday after his scratch Saturday. The unspoken big picture was a player coming face to face with a new career path leading to the end.
“I understand my situation,” Carter said Monday.
Even if Carter were not forced into the Penguins lineup Thursday, Sullivan would have been well within his rights and perhaps correct to re-insert Carter. It would have been a show of the immense respect that Sullivan already expressed earlier this week when he spoke glowingly of Carter’s career and his contributions to the team and the game.
And it would have been a lift to the locker room, too. Every player wants that type of respect, and when shown, it can lift a room.
The season stats in this situation don’t matter as much as the career stats. Carter has played 1258 games, scoring 431 goals. As Sullivan put it, “a career that’s knocking on the door of the Hall of Fame.”
Even if Carter has no intention of announcing his future plans (in September, he flatly said he’s given no thought to next season), the potential for it to be his last season is obvious.
Sometimes, emotion trumps logic. Logic posits that it would have been an easy decision to keep Vinnie Hinostroza in the lineup. The Penguins have won two in a row, Hinostroza had two points in his debut against San Jose, and the Penguins’ fourth line was able to defend the talented Anaheim Ducks top-six.
Carter has no points in nine games played this season. But respect and necessity will put Carter back in the lineup in the one place where he had his greatest success.
Serendipity or a little bit of poetic license by the hockey gods, Carter will get one more go-round in LA.