EL SEGUNDO, CA — Desperate for scoring, and to keep his job, Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi has sent talented defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first round draft pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for center Jeff Carter.
Should the Kings miss the playoffs this season, the first round pick moves to the 2013 National Hockey League Entry Draft. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets get to choose to use the pick in 2012 or 2013, and they get to decide two picks prior to the Kings’ first round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
The trade is also conditional on Carter and Johnson passing physical examinations.
In 61 games this season, Johnson has scored eight goals and has contributed 16 assists for 24 points, with 24 penalty minutes. Five of his goals came on the power play.
On the downside, the 6-1, 231-pound native of Indianapolis, Indiana has a -12 plus/minus rating on a team that ranks sixth in the league defensively, something that has been as issue throughout his NHL career, even though he has improved defensively this season.
In 39 games this season, Carter, who scored a career-high 46 goals with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2009-09 season, has scored 15 goals and has tallied ten assists for 25 points, with a -11 rating and 14 penalty minutes, after being traded to the Blue Jackets from the Flyers last summer.
But when the trade went down, the 6-4, 199-pound native of London, Ontario immediately expressed his disappointment—he was clearly not happy about the trade.
“Jeff struggled with this right from the outset,” Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson said during a press conference in Columbus. “He made a long-term commitment in Philadelphia, and it was hard for him to deal with this trade. I thought he came in with an open attitude.”
“The season got off on the wrong foot,” Howson added. “We couldn’t get on the winning track, and he got injured early. As the season went on, we decided it would be the right thing to make a move with him. We were patient, and wanted to see what was out there.”
“We were excited, and had high expectations when we acquired Jeff Carter, but we just couldn’t quite find the right fit for him.”
A change of scenery, not to mention reuniting Carter with his good friend, center Mike Richards (both played with the Flyers), might just light a fire under Carter, which is exactly what the Kings are gambling on.
Reunited and it feels so good...... Excited to be back playing with carts #needaroommate—
Michael Richards (@MRichie_10) February 24, 2012
“It’s not easy to go out on the marketplace and find a guy who has the potential to score forty goals, who is 27 years old and has a [salary] cap number that is very favorable, in terms of me keeping this nucleus together,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “So, sure there’s been some questions on Jeff in the last year or two, but knowing him well from where we were, having [Kings assistant coach] John Stevens, who coached him [in Philadelphia], and guys who played with him, putting it all together, I think this is a good move for us.”
“I am obviously excited,” said Carter. “I am familiar with the [Kings}, and a lot of guys on the team. I looked at the Kings at the start of the year as being a club in a good position to win. I look forward to coming to LA and being a part of it all.”
If Carter was a bit of a malcontent, at least to start, with the Blue Jackets, how much of a risk is he, in terms of character, with the Kings?
“I think it’s obvious that John Stevens is very familiar with him,” Lombardi noted. “So that’s first-hand, behind-the-bench knowledge of a player, which we were fortunate enough to have here. It’s probably safe to say, given that so many people here are tied to Philly, we’re fortunate that we could do some research here.”
“Part of it is my own personal experience, from when I was in Philly, driving to the rink with him when he was with the [Philadelphia] Phantoms [of the American Hockey League, the Flyers’ primary minor league affiliate],” Lombardi added. “’I’ve had a lot of personal contact with him, on a lot of levels, and we’re fortunate to have access to it. Again, some of it is my own first-hand [experience], having been there when he broke in as a pro.”
For the Blue Jackets’ part, they were in no hurry to trade Carter, but Howson got the offer he wanted.
“I did not feel that we had to move Jeff Carter, or anyone, for that matter, before this [trade] deadline,” he noted. “If the opportunity was there, we were going to take it, and if the return was right.”
“We were not going to make a deal just to get rid of a player,” he added. “It had to be the right return, and we really feel we did in this trade.”
Enter the Kings and Lombardi, who indicated that the Kings were likely competing with at least one other team for Carter’s services.
“I’m thinking that there was probably one or two [teams],” said Lombardi. “[But] does it really matter? Because this is a player they don’t have to move. So whether or not somebody else is bidding on him is not an issue, if in fact that team does not have to move him, because this is their price.”
“I think it’s fair to say that people know Jeff wasn’t thrilled [with being traded to the Blue Jackets], but it could be like the Cincinnati Bengals guy [quarterback Carson Palmer] or whatever—’Hey, we’re not moving you unless we get a fair price,’ and that, I perfectly get,” added Lombardi. “I don’t think, in any way, Columbus could have done a garage sale for this player, if we wanted him now. It’s one thing to be bidding on a player who—it’s not like a free agent, where he has to go somewhere and it’s a bidding war—who are you bidding against? It’s not like a rental at the trade deadline, where he’s out there and he’s going to go, so you want to get him for the lowest price. This is a player who doesn’t have to go anywhere. So, Columbus sets the price, and if somebody meets it, you get him. If you don’t, you hold onto him. I know that’s not exactly what Columbus wanted to do, maybe, holding onto him, but they could easily—looking at their situation—have moved him in the summer. So I don’t think I was really concerned about a bidding war, so to speak. I was like, ‘I get it.’ If I’m [Howson], I’m not moving this guy unless I can get what I think is a fair price, or I’ll try again in the summer. That’s kind of the way I was approaching it.”
Although this deal smacks of desperation on Lombardi’s part, with his team flailing away with the worst offense in the league, he stressed that this was the type of deal he has been looking to make all season.
“Even in the summer, I always felt we were still a top forward away,” said Lombardi. “That said, I didn’t think we were 30th in the league in scoring. Part of the thing that broke down is our secondary scoring. Not having a guy like [forward Scott] Parse all year, losing [left wing] Simon Gagne and, essentially, not getting much out of [left wing] Dustin Penner. So our secondary scoring kind of broke down, and our top-end scoring wasn’t able to carry it.”
“Even in our plan in July, in terms of being that contender-type team, we felt we were still a top player, ideally a winger, away,” added Lombardi. “So that’s always there. You’d like to make this deal from where you projected you were. You thought you were short in this area, but you didn’t think you were 30th in the league. I think that’s the frustrating part for all of us, how this has snowballed to, whoa!”
“If we’re 15th or 20th in the league, where I kind of projected offensively, I’m still looking for this deal. But I don’t like the fact that the projection is off, on where we should be starting this deal from. Part of that, again, I think is the way our secondary scoring dried up, which would take the heat off our top guys, who need to be better. That’s the only troubling thing.”
Even though Lombardi said that acquiring a talented forward such as Carter has been part of his plan all along, his team’s utter futility in the offensive zone certainly changed the circumstances.
“I certainly see this [move] as part of the plan, as I said, if you look at the things I tried to do in July and what I’ve been trying to do all year,” Lombardi emphasized. “It’s within that framework, but it’s not under the foundation I would’ve expected.”
“I wish we were not making it from 30th in the league,” Lombardi added. “I don’t think anyone here thinks—in the room, the coaches—that we should be in that position, and have to make this deal look like desperation, versus adding a piece that we were trying to add before anyway.”
When discussing his team’s problems, Lombardi, as he often does, looked back at his experience with the San Jose Sharks, noting that what has happened with the Kings closely mirrors what happened in San Jose.
“Yes, and [head coach] Darryl [Sutter] and I have talked about that,” said Lombardi. “This morning, we were here at 6:30, and I said, `OK, it’s very similar to San Jose. Six years, and we improved every year, but everybody forgot that we got younger every year.’ We hit the wall as the young players started taking over. The transition got off-track, and it snowballed on them. There were some similarities there, because we had holdouts there as we had a holdout here this year [defenseman Drew Doughty], with young players. So, experience is the best teacher.”
“We were sitting here this morning and we said, `OK, there are some similarities here It’s an incredibly young team with high expectations, exactly what happened in San Jose.’ The younger it got, the further it was expected to go,” added Lombardi. “That’s exactly what has happened here. That’s good, but these young kids have to learn to deal with expectations. As I’ve always said, when you’re in a building plan, you get old to get young. So you’re old at the beginning, and you slowly whittle it down.”
“When [Sutter] looked at it, he said, ‘I didn’t realize we were this young.’ I said, `Yeah, it kind of went a little faster than we thought.’ But, that said, let’s learn from this and get this back on track. Now we’ve added a guy that’s young, but this isn’t a young, unproven player. It’s funny you bring that up, because that was the first thing Darryl and I talked about. I said, `You didn’t have to go through the holdout here, like we did in San Jose, but…’ What did we learn from it, and how are we going to stop it? That said, it’s one of those intangibles, and you never know for sure, but I have a lot more confidence that we’re going to get through this and get the ship back on track. Because they’re good kids and, I’ll tell you what, they care. That’s the one thing Darryl has said consistently here. This is a really good group. They really care. They’re really struggling with finding their own identity and dealing with what it takes to be a winner. That’s why he is here, to guide them through the process.”
In Carter, the Kings have a player who is the antithesis of what they have now, in that he is a shoot-first forward. The hope is that not only will he score goals, but that his shoot-first attitude will influence his teammates to take the puck to the dangerous areas of the ice and shoot the puck. But the risk is that Carter comes with a very long contract, one that has an a $5.27 million annual salary cap hit until the 2021-22 season.
Evidently, Carter was worth the risk, not to mention the long, long-term commitment.
“If any of you guys can figure out the length of contracts that are ideal for players, it’s tough,” he noted. “But like I said, Jeff has proven he is a winner, with the way he has come up, and seeing what he has done with the Phantoms, and breaking in with Philly and the World Juniors, so it’s in him. You just always hope, with young people, that they never lose that, despite the fact that everything is secure. That said, it’s just one of the quirks in the system. If that player plays like he’s capable of, and you’ve got an AAV (annual; average value) of $5.2 [million] for that caliber of player, that’s very advantageous.”
“That’s the trade-off,” he added. “You’ve got a huge risk here, that this player is going to be committed to being the best he can be, despite financial security. That’s the risk, but the payoff is, you get a heck of a player and you’ve got a $5.2 [million] cap [hit].”
“It’s by far the youngest core in the league, and it’s expensive, as you see with Doughty and [center Anze] Kopitar, and some of these guys. These type of things allow you the flexibility to keep some other key pieces within the mix, if, in fact, it all comes together. So that’s the trade-off, trusting the player’s character, that he’s going to earn this thing and not feel secure. In return, you’ve got a very good cap number.”
To be sure, Lombardi is hoping Carter can help players like Kopitar, in particular, to find their way again. But anyone raising their hands in the air and screaming “hallelujah!” might want to think twice, as no one player, including Carter, will resurrect the Kings’ fortunes.
“The other thing I’m gauging is that [the Kings’ offensive woes] kind of snowballed on us,” said Lombardi. “I’ve talked to so many hockey people about this. It’s almost psychological now. How much of this is quality of play, speed, skill? It’s been beating us up mentally, and I think that’s part of it, and they’re going to have to fight their way through. It’s not easy for them.”
“As I’ve said, when you’re in the building process, depending on the day, we’re one of the top three youngest teams in the league,” added Lombardi. “They’ve got high expectations, and that’s part of it. So this is something you wanted to add, but you wanted to have a better base here. So, Jeff Carter is not going to come in and be the cavalry.”
“We’ve got guys who still have to perform at a higher level, grow into becoming winners, and get some other players back to their identity of doing what they do well.”
Depth On Blue Line A Major Factor For Both Teams
From the Kings’ perspective, Johnson has been talked about since last summer as being their most attractive trade bait, given his talent, skating ability, and his very attractive, trade-friendly contract, which has an annual salary cap hit of $4.375 million through the 2017-18 season. But the reason Johnson was dangled as trade bait is the emergence of defenseman Slava Voynov, who will take Johnson’s place on the roster, and may be more talented offensively.
“It’s probably fair to say, like you saw us in the summer looking for a top forward, Brad Richards, that we’ve always kind of been in that market,” said Lombardi. “Now, who you can get and how much you have to give up? But I think the only way we can make this deal is because we have some young defensemen coming through the system. Otherwise, with how I feel about the back end, we’re still one of the best teams in the league defensively.”
“We see some things within the system that kind of allowed us to reach out to a player of this caliber, who is still a young player barely in his prime,” added Lombardi. “This isn’t a rental. To me, this isn’t your classic trade-deadline deal, where you’re giving up young players for a rental type situation. This is a good young player for a good young [player]. This is a hockey deal.”
Voynov has played in 33 games for the Kings this season, scoring four goals and adding seven assists for eleven points, and has not looked out of place at all during his first season in the NHL. He was assigned back to the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) on February 10, allowing the Kings to recall forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan from the Monarchs when Kings center Jarret Stoll went down with a groin injury.
Lombardi emphasized that the only reason Voynov was sent down was because he did not have to clear waivers.
“He played very well for us,” Lombardi noted. “The only reason he was in the minors, when we sent him down, it was pure roster size. We wanted to change our mix up front, and bring those two kids up, King and Nolan. So we had to create a roster spot. That was the only reason he went down. He will be coming up here, immediately.”
“He played very well for us, and he’s a great fit for [defenseman] Willie Mitchell, lefty-righty,” Lombardi added. “He’s got a lot to learn, but this is a very good young defenseman.”
Voynov’s emergence was a major factor in this trade.
“I’m not so sure that, if he hadn’t performed the way he did, despite the fact of how much we would be interested in getting Jeff Carter, I’m not sure I would be this aggressive,” said Lombardi.
For Columbus, Johnson is the type of defenseman they do not have, and that appears to be a factor in the deal.
“Jack is a talented young defenseman who will strengthen our defense corps, and we are very excited to add him to our organization,” said Howson. “We are committed to re-shaping our club and moving forward. Adding a player like Jack and a first round pick are important parts of that process.”
Johnson had the usual reaction players have to being traded.
“I’m excited by this,” he told Shawn Mitchell in the Columbus Dispatch’s Puckrakers blog. “I’m excited to go to a team that wants me, and to play in a great sports city. I want to be part of the solution there.”
“I know they’ve had some bad breaks and some tough seasons, but it’s going to be great when it turns around,” he added. “Really, I don’t think there’s anything sweeter in sports than being part of a team when they get it turned around.”
Penner Headed For Oblivion?
With Voynov coming up from Manchester, and with the acquisition of Carter, the Kings will have to make a roster move.
“We’ll be making a roster move shortly,” said Lombardi. [Voynov is] coming up, and we’ll have to make an adjustment here.”
“I want to see what Darryl wants to do with one guy in particular,” added Lombardi. “One of the forwards will have to go down.”
The easiest move would be to assign either King or Nolan back to Manchester, since neither would have to clear waivers. But, reading between the lines, one would guess that if Lombardi was referring to either King or Nolan, there probably would not be much to discuss with Sutter.
Indeed, an educated guess is that Lombardi was referring to Penner. If correct, he would be placed on waivers, most likely by the time you read this story on Friday, February 24. If he clears waivers, he would then be assigned to Manchester, likely ending his tenure with the Kings, and. as poorly as he has played since last Spring, it could even spell the end of his NHL career, as there is a strong possibility that no NHL team will be interested in signing him as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Another Trade Coming?
Not long after the Carter deal came down, speculation that the Kings were shopping right wing and team captain Dustin Brown increased dramatically after TSN’s Bob McKenzie posted a comment to that effect on Twitter.
But Lombardi said that he has nothing in the works.
Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) February 24, 2012
“I don’t think you ever stop doing your job, as far as being in the market,” he noted. “But in terms of looking at everything we have looked at, I think we’re pretty much [done].”
“Right now, I have absolutely nothing,” he added. “But you never know. I have absolutely nothing, but we’ll see.”
That’s a typical, non-committal answer from an NHL general manager with the trade deadline looming, so anything remains possible.
Stay tuned, as things could get even more interesting between now and Monday’s noon PST trade deadline.
Raw Audio Interview: Dean Lombardi Press Conference Call, February 23, 2012
(22:40; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
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