EL SEGUNDO, CA — Over the course of their 52-year history, the Los Angeles Kings have had more than their share of players who wore their jersey for a short time before going on to become major contributors for other National Hockey League teams, if not big stars. These are players who often make one wonder what might’ve been if they had remained with the Kings.
One such player had the talent to become a big star in the NHL, perhaps even a superstar, but was unable to attain that status. Despite that, former Kings center Jimmy Carson is, arguably, the player who raises the question, “what if…”
Indeed, after the Kings selected him in the first round (second overall) of the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, Carson made an immediate impact, scoring 37 goals and adding 42 assists for 79 points in 80 regular season games in 1986-87.
That season, two other rookies, left wing Luc Robitaille and defenseman Steve Duchesne, joined Carson in the Kings lineup. The trio surprised everyone, dazzling fans and other teams alike. They each went on to make the 1987 NHL All-Rookie Team, with Robitaille winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
“It was very exciting because we were all rookies and we were experiencing the same thing, learning new things,” said Carson.
“Steve Duchesne came out of nowhere,” said Kings television color commentator Jim Fox, who played right wing for the Kings from 1980-90, and ranks tenth on the team’s all-time scoring list. “He was a modern-day defenseman—he was so slick, agile and mobile. But not a lot was known about him, at the time. For Luc and Jimmy, their numbers in junior were through the roof. Luc was the pure goal scorer. Jimmy was a powerful skater and you could see that. His top speed was so fast.”
“You had two offensive guys who fed off one another in Luc and Jimmy,” said former Kings center Bernie Nicholls, who played for the Kings from 1981-90 and ranks sixth on the team’s all-time scoring list. “It wasn’t necessarily a competition. But each wanted to out-do the other, in a good way, and it was great for us. It was a friendly competition that you love on a team. You love seeing skilled guys like that trying to do better than the other guy and if they did that, they were helping the team.”
Carson’s former teammates marveled at his hard, accurate shot—slap shot, snap shot or wrist shot.
“He would say to me, ‘why don’t you try to shoot the puck harder, because I was always trying to place the puck,” Fox recalled. “He could place it. But he could also overpower a goalie and that’s how he scored—probably—most of his goals—just down the wing and bam! He’d unload. Part of that was his speed, just flying down the wing and unloading. He didn’t hold back.”
“I remember that he was one of those guys who could skate down the wing, take a slap shot, pick a corner and score,” said former Kings defenseman Mark Hardy, who played two stints with the Kings, from 1979-88 and 1992-94. “He had an amazing shot. and it was so accurate. He had that [former New York Islanders superstar Mike] Bossy touch. He could come down that wing and he could really skate. He could score from that right wing where a lot of guys couldn’t.”
“His wrist shot was great,” Nicholls observed. “Really accurate. He was really skilled. I liked watching him on breakaways. He could pick corners as well as anybody.”
Even though he was just a wet-behind -the-ears rookie, his teammates were impressed with his maturity and acuity.
“He studied the game really well, said Nicholls. “Always thinking. I don’t remember if he asked a lot of questions, but he watched older players and took everything in.”
That maturity extended off the ice, as well.
“He was so mature for his age,” Fox recalled. We called him ‘The Governor,’ because we thought he’d be a future governor, which might still be in the works, who knows?”
“The on-ice stuff was apparent,” added Fox. “He was so highly skilled. But the off-ice stuff—he was so very worldly and he was up on current events. He was able to give an informed opinion because he was always on top of things.”
Fox then recalled a story that illustrated just how sharp Carson was, especially for his age.
“In his first year, he ended up sitting on the bus beside [Hall of Fame ‘Voice of the Kings’], Bob Miller [now retired],” Fox reminisced. “They were just chatting and he asked Bob, ‘What’s up with your contract?’ Bob said, ‘I’m done at the end of the year.’ Then, Jimmy went into this dissertation. ‘I could make some calls for you.’ This was his first year in the league, and he’s trying to help Bob negotiate a contract.”
“Even as a player back then, he would say, ‘I’m going to talk to [former Montreal Canadiens great and former Canadiens general manager] Serge Savard about this,’” added Fox. “He’d be talking to executives of other teams—general managers. He always had that businessman approach. That’s something that maybe didn’t show up on the ice, but it sure showed up off the ice.”
Carson followed his rookie season with an even more spectacular sophomore season by scoring 55 goals and contributing 52 assists for 107 points in 80 regular season games.
“Jimmy was such a great skater and he played the game so well,” Hardy observed. “He was a really good center. He was good offensively and defensively. He had to learn the defensive side of the game, but he was a very intelligent player.”
“Jimmy was a prolific point producer,” Fox noted. “You hear about a player sometimes, ‘all he could do was score.’ Well, that’s what the game is all about and he was prolific in that area. He could get it done and that’s the bottom line.”
Carson has very fond memories of his stellar second year with the Kings.
“The second year, we all had really good years,” Carson noted. “Luc, Dave Taylor and I were a line and we each scored 50 goals that year. That was a lot of fun. There was a lot of excitement with the whole organization.”
Little did he know that his life and career were about to take a very abrupt, northward turn. Indeed, on August 9, 1988, Carson, a budding star, was one of the players the Kings sent to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, in what is still the biggest trade in professional sports history.
In 1988-89, Carson would go on to score 49 goals and add 51 assists for 100 points in 80 regular season games in his first season with the Oilers. But that season was a big disappointment for the Oilers, who ended the season with a 38-34-8 (84 points) record, good for third in Smythe Division. To make matters worse, they were eliminated in seven games by the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Although Carson led the Oilers in goals that season, he quickly became the scapegoat for the team’s struggles—their third-place finish and their early exit from the playoffs. Indeed, all season long, Edmonton fans let Carson know, loud and clear, that they didn’t like him, that he wasn’t wanted, and that he wasn’t Wayne Gretzky…which is really the sole reason he became the focal point of their displeasure.
It was like Carson had a target painted on his back, everyone had a gun and they were all firing away.
“It was tough, especially going to Canada, as an American player, and then, getting traded for Wayne Gretzky,” said Nicholls. “That wouldn’t be fair for anybody.”
That’s putting it mildly. But to his credit, looking back, Carson wasn’t making any excuses.
“There was a lot of pressure in Edmonton.” he said. “It was a very different experience after what was, arguably, the biggest trade in the history of sports.”
“The guys were great and they were great players,” Carson said about his Oilers teammates. “Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Jari Kerri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Craig Simpson—the list goes on. It was an amazing group. It was a tough thing, but there are fond memories, as well.”
The next season, a knee injury, and his desire to be traded resulted in Carson being dealt to the Detroit Red Wings, where he scored 20 goals and added 16 assists for 36 points in 44 regular season games. He went on to play three more seasons with the Red Wings before being traded back to the Kings in a package deal in which superstar defenseman Paul Coffey was sent to the Red Wings on January 29, 1993.
Back with the Kings, Carson went on to score twelve goals and add ten assists for 22 points in 34 regular season games. In 18 playoff games, he scored five goals and added four assists for nine points.
Carson led the Kings in scoring in their six-game first round series win over the Calgary Flames when the Kings scored a franchise record for goals scored in a seven-game series (33).
But after the first round, Carson mysteriously disappeared from the Kings lineup until the Stanley Cup Final, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in five games.
“Coaches make decisions,” he said. “What can you do? I had a really good series against Calgary. I was leading the team in scoring. But coaches make decisions and we kept winning. I did get back in during the Cup Final against Montreal.”
“That was tough to accept,” he added. “But that’s the time to remember that the team comes first and you just proceed in that manner.”
Carson recalled the excitement around the Kings during those 1993 playoffs.
“Back then, the city was on fire,” he reminisced. “Everyone was excited. The atmosphere was great. It was fantastic to be a part of that. We just didn’t close the deal. Three overtime losses in a row. That was tough. But overall, that was a great experience. I think a lot of people here in L.A. remember that.”
Despite being on a team that had reached the Stanley Cup Final and having a couple of 100-point seasons on his resumé, Carson never came close to that level again after suffering the knee injury—he had clearly lost a step or two.
“I tore my posterior crucial ligament in Edmonton,” he said. “After that, I went to Detroit and we had Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and myself. I put in some 30-goal seasons there, but when the expectation is 50 and you score 30 or 35, it’s different. Also, I got less ice time, but that’s not an excuse.”
Carson finished his NHL career playing just eleven games with the Hartford Whalers in 1995-96. In 626 NHL regular season games, he scored 275 goals and tallied 286 assists for 561 points. In 55 NHL playoff games, he scored 17 goals and added 15 assists for 32 points.
As mentioned earlier, Carson’s history in the NHL raises the question, “what if,” especially regarding what might’ve happened if he wasn’t part of the 1988 Gretzky trade. After all, his first two seasons in the NHL showed that he had “star” written all over him.
“I used to think about that, but not now,” Carson said during the Kings fantasy camp in March 2019. “I would’ve loved to have stayed here. I even bought a home here. I was very acclimated. [Former Kings owner] Bruce McNall and I were negotiating a long-term contract and I thought I’d be in L.A. for many years.”
“I often wondered what might’ve happened if I had been able to stay in L.A.,” added Carson. “But I don’t really look back at it that way anymore. Playing in the NHL was a dream come true. I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of great experiences.”
Carson noted that he was privileged to play in the NHL with some great teammates.
“I played with a lot of great players,” he reminisced. “I can start listing players, from Steve Yzerman to Sergei Fedorov, Mark Messier to Luc Robitaille to Dave Taylor to Bernie Nicholls, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Dino Ciccerelli—it just keeps going on.”
“That was an amazing experience,” he added. “Personally, to score 50 goals was great. That was a highlight, as was playing in the Stanley Cup Final, so there are quite a few great memories.”
Indeed. But even if Carson isn’t asking it, the question remains…
LEAD PHOTO: Jimmy Carson of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates during a game against the Hartford Whalers in 1986 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Photo: Rick Stewart. Embedded via Getty Images).
SECOND PHOTO: Carson is shown here during the Kings 2019 Fantasy Camp at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 16, 2019. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net
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