Jeff Carter: “Better Than Any Trade?”

Attempting to figure out just how much Carter could bring to the table for the Los Angeles Kings down the stretch.

We’re used to the NHL Trade Deadline being a disappointment. Although leaguewide activity picked up and more first-round picks were traded today than in any of the past ten deadline days, the Kings largely stayed away from the available players after landing Dion Phaneuf, Tobias Rieder, and Nate Thompson in earlier deals. I certainly didn’t want LA -- an apparent longshot for the Stanley Cup even if they do make the playoffs -- giving up Gabriel Vilardi, Kale Clague, or a draft pick likely to be in the middle of the first round. In terms of protecting the Kings’ future assets, the deadline was a success.

Of course, you’ve likely heard several voices proclaim that the Kings got the best deadline acquisition of all, without lifting a finger.

Carter was activated prior to Saturday’s game against Edmonton, and it instantly made the Kings better. That much was clear immediately; while Carter was on the ice, the Kings got 11 shots on Cam Talbot while only allowing 3 shots on goal, even with Carter starting 12 of his 15 shifts outside the offensive zone. Carter was on the ice for both Dustin Brown’s goal and the subsequent disallowed goal as well, and if playing the third-most minutes of any LA forward wasn’t an indication that he was good to go, that final-minute usage was.

The question, then, probably isn’t going to be whether Jeff Carter is fully healthy for the stretch run. (I say probably; who knows how Carter will respond on night two of a back-to-back against Vegas after putting up nine shots and playing 19:17 on night one?) It’s just how much of a difference Carter is going to make down the stretch. Keeping in mind that we’re only getting 20 games of Carter, we could look at this in a few ways.

Let’s start with the most direct effect: his scoring. If he scores at last season’s pace -- not unreasonable considering LA’s overall offensive improvement and a similar supporting cast -- he’s good for eight goals and eight assists during this season-ending stretch. Only Anze Kopitar has a higher goal pace among Kings forwards in 2017-18 than Carter had in 2016-17, and only Anze Kopitar has a higher assist pace. (Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin are both on track for more assists as well, with Doughty having surpassed Carter’s 2016-17 assist total already.) Measured against other second-line centers on this team, it’s an obvious improvement; Adrian Kempe is headed for a 20-20 season, which is nothing to sneer at, but Carter’s production has topped that pace easily in the last four seasons. And in a pure comparison to whichever fourth liner sits for Carter, there’s no comparison.

If we are looking for a worst-case scenario, Carter’s worst 20-game stretch last season resulted in three goals and six assists. Somewhat ominously, that stretch (which was actually 22 games if you include additional pointless contests on either end) was between February 19 and April 4, but if we chalk that up to Carter being tired, it’s easier to brush it off. Chop off that last month of the season and Carter was remarkably consistent; every 20-game stretch saw Carter score between 15 and 20 points.

The bigger impact might be for Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Recall how good that line was last season in terms of Corsi percentages; aside from Boston’s noted Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio and Calgary’s 3M line, no line (min. 250 minutes) had a better CF% than That 70’s Line.

On a team that has been about league-average in Corsi For% this season, Carter provides a welcome boost. In all regards, though, Toffoli and Pearson, unsurprisingly, saw improvements in their overall statistics when playing with Carter last season. Toffoli actually got more of a boost than Pearson; while the jumps in CF% were almost identical, some of the differences in Pearson’s stats can be chalked up to worse zone starts and poor shooting luck without Carter. Nonetheless, both players clearly enjoy playing with Carter, and with each mired in a five-points-in-twenty-games rut, they need #77 badly.

We haven’t even taken into account Carter’s versatility. He was one of LA’s top penalty killers last season, and for the sake of comparison, here are his stats against Torrey Mitchell, who has had a Carter-sized role in this season’s PK, and Thompson, who’s had even heavier PK usage this year. (Note that about 90% of Thompson’s minutes were in Ottawa, while about 20% of Mitchell’s minutes were in Montreal.)

Carter/Mitchell/Thompson, 4v5 PK Stats, 2016-18

SeasonPlayerPositionGPTOITOI/GPFF/60FA/60FF%GF/60GA/60GF%SCF/60SCA/60SCF%On-Ice SH%On-Ice SV%Off. Zone Faceoff %
2016-17Jeff CarterC82116:51:001:2512.8463.1616.891.034.6218.1812.8444.1622.5210.53884.76
2016-17Torrey MitchellC78136:03:001:447.571.899.440.446.626.253.5346.757.026.6787.395.65
2016-17Nate ThompsonC3046:27:001:326.4664.599.0901.2903.8846.57.69096.9716.22
2017-18Torrey MitchellC4565:58:001:2716.3783.6616.360.919.099.091067.2912.946.2584.137.55
2017-18Nate ThompsonC49105:18:002:0815.3886.0415.171.149.1211.116.8455.8410.918.3385.455.04

So far Stevens has opted not to use Carter on the PK, but he’s more than capable of making a difference on that front.

There’s still much to be determined about how Carter affects the other Kings. Do potential top-sixers such as Kempe, Rieder, and Alex Iafallo see their production hurt with Carter’s return? Will LA continue to rely more heavily on Mitchell and Thompson, even in normal situations? Does the defense as a whole benefit from Carter slotting back in? We’ll know for sure in April, but even before he banked in a goal off Cody Eakin’s face, it was apparent that Carter would be a difference-maker. Hopefully, that difference is enough to get the Los Angeles Kings into the playoffs.