Carter Is the Little Pill

“More problems than Carter’s got pills,” my grandma used to say. It was from an old ad, I think for Carter’s Liver Pills. Who knows what good, or ill, they did you, but the catchphrase stuck well past the product’s heyday. Carter’s represented plenty, more, abundance. That’s just what the LA Kings are hoping their Carter, Jeff, will do for them. Represent lots–of goals.

Jeff Carter is no short-term solution. So said Darryl Sutter after the Kings game Saturday night. Coach Sutter further commented that his GM, Dean Lombardi, is going about things the right way, not resorting to the rental-player mode of doing things. (That’s not to say the Kings might not pick up someone for the short-term in the next day or so. Just that the general plan being followed is not the wham-bam method, but rather a calculated one.)

But if Carter is not a one-burst wonder, he sure announced his presence on the LA scene quickly against Chicago Saturday night. No, he didn’t reprise his hat trick of four nights before. It was for Dustin Brown to score three on this night. Instead, Carter got a puck inside his own blueline. He backhanded a pass out of the zone to Dwight King, then chased King down ice. Carter eventually came out of the right corner with the puck, and he got away a quick shot. “When I get a shot opportunity,” he said after the game, “it’s going on the net every time. I try to get it away as quickly as I can. That chance, I thought it was going in.”

It stung the goalie, Corey Crawford, and he ended up lying on his back for a second, then rolling over and getting up slowly. When IH asked him about the play later, Carter said, “Did it?” responding to the report that he knocked Crawford down with the puck. “Like I said before, when I get a chance, it’s going to the net. Richie [Mike Richards] obviously knows that, and ‘Kinger’ [Dwight King] is a big guy. When we get a practice or two, it should be good.”

Maybe to read too much into this singular event is a bit optimistic, and Sutter was pretty pointed in his description of Carter’s play on the evening, noting that number 77 had seen his minutes taper off as the night went on, and that he must have been pretty exhausted having had the few days that he has. He also said that Carter was in Indianapolis Friday for medical checkups. When a reporter standing in front of him expressed surprise at that, Sutter explained that that’s just where the doctors are, and that it’s all a part of things these days with contracts being what they are.

Carter said himself, “It was kind of a grind for me tonight. The last couple of days, [made me] feel a little bit sluggish. But I thought we did a few good things.”

If you could describe what Carter seemed to bring, not just to his line’s play (he was with Mike Richards and Dwight King, recent golden boy from Manchester), it would be by saying that he stretches the ice. He’s not afraid to make long passes, often diagonally, and that’s something LA hardly ever does. They’re a defense-oriented team, and even their offense concentrates on short passes, quick up and back, and a lot of cycling, much of which leads to nothing. Hence the problem with low goal scoring.

Carter seems to be of another ilk, his play resembling what SoCal fans see when they attend an Anaheim game. He puts the puck across his own blueline. He leads guys. He’s fun and offensive in his attitude, not safety-minded.

On that matter of defense, Carter has already been schooled. When IH asked him about his play and whether it’s possible for one guy to come in and make a huge difference, as he seemed to have done on this night, he repeated the mantra which is often heard around the team: “I know they play defense first. They haven’t given me a green light at all. I think the main thing on this team is that they play defense first, and uh, uh, you know, when you’re playing strong defense and taking everything on net, you’re going to get lots of chances.” (Not always true, and not fun to watch, but party line nonetheless.)

But then it got interesting. “Going in the offense zone, I’m trying to jump in and do everything possible,” he summarized. In other words, I’ll say what I know I have to, because in the brief time I’ve been here, I’ve absorbed the basics, but do you want a forty-goal scorer or don’t you? And if you do, then damn your defense.

Good for him. And good for the fans, a full house of which enjoyed seeing not just the stellar plays already described from this newbie, but others. In period three, Richards did a Carter, tipping a soft pass behind him between his legs coming off the boards. Carter grabbed that puck but was hindered by a Chicago stick and only managed half the shot he might have gotten, but it was again a sign of two guys who have instinct for one another.

Carter also added to his post-game comments this nugget: “Richards is a guy who is going to find the holes. He’s going to be in the soft areas, behind the D, and you know, I guess because we’ve played together, I have an idea where he’s going and what he’s doing.”

Is this rocket science? It’s not like these two are Vincent LeCavalier and that little dude, St. Louis. They’ve played the better part of a decade with one another, and their passes are now pure instinct, always going to the spot where nobody is until the other one shows up there just in time to snatch the puck and put it behind a startled netminder or defenseman.

Carter and Richards were with one another in Philly, but not for all that long, and not always on the same shifts. And, let’s say it, lots of players have been with Mike Richards this year in LA, guys who have thirty, forty games with him. Why couldn’t they figure out where he was going to be and put pucks there?

Why does one guy make a big difference in one game? Carter had no points on the night, but the flow of play with his line out was more exciting than anything we’ve seen from this team for a year or two or three. It wasn’t just scoring four goals to win 4-0. As I’ve noted in prior stories on the Kings, despite the dismal overall goal numbers this year and the myriad of 1-0 games, the team has also been in more than a handful of four and five-goal efforts, even having one the other night and losing, 5-4, to Phoenix. No, the difference here was in approach. Carter goes for it. He thinks first and always about scoring goals.

Boyishly blond and well-spoken, Carter has been followed by suspicions of wild off-ice behavior. There’s little proof of mischief except photos which show what twenty-five year olds, and thirty-five and forty-five year-olds, do—going out to have a drink with friends. And you’ve got to think that being in LA and being young, handsome, and rich, will have its temptations. But for now, at least, he is a hockey player first, and one who has a simple game and worked it on this night to perfection.

Looking at the stat sheet, in fact, his coach’s initial impressions, at least of his TOI, were wrong. Carter put in over 17 minutes, third behind Richards and Jarret Stoll on the evening. He had four shots, tied with Dustin Brown, and one behind Dustin Penner. That’s going to result in goals down the road, and that’s all this team needs to demand from this guy.

The trouble will come if the coaches and management try to push him into the defensive mold which has taken Kopitar’s initiative away. Sure, he might win the Selke, but being the best defensive forward when you could be Esposito-like in your ability to score is, well, just boring.

Carter is, as he said, here for the long haul, maybe forever. He seems to know that. His coach does. Now two things need to happen: the team needs to leave him alone to play his game, and he needs to spend more time in his garage shining up whatever Ferrari he picks up in Beverly Hills next week and less time using it to chase the good life in LaLaLand.

Notes

Gretzky was in the house. No sign of Sajak.

Look for Brian at Charles Smith’s Inside Sports show on youtube.

And yes, he’s on twitter @growinguphockey.

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