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Grading the trade: thoughts on Jeff Carter joining the Penguins

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How do we feel about Jeff Carter becoming a Pittsburgh Penguin?

Los Angeles Kings v Pittsburgh Penguins

The late night news has reached daybreak, with the Penguins picking up forward Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for two draft picks. It’s a third round pick in 2022 and a fourth round pick in 2023, with an added condition that if the Pens make the Stanley Cup Final and Carter plays in 50%+ of the playoff games, that third round pick graduates up to a second rounder.

How do we feel about this move? A bit mixed, and as always, it depends on factors outside of public knowledge right now.

The actual trade cost isn’t that much, nor too costly for Pittsburgh. A couple of mid-round picks are low percentage bets and a decent value, especially considering players like Nick Foligno and David Savard are being traded for first round picks as rentals.

The opportunity costs stands out more. The Pens have limited space to bring in players. Was choosing a 36-year old in decline the best use of that space? Possibly, possibly not.

There’s also a valid question of how much Carter has left in the tank when it comes to playing championship caliber hockey. Here’s his career resume from Hockey DB, we added in a line..

Carter suffered a major ankle tendon injury in 2017 and that was one that took away a lot of his speed and ability to skate at a high level. In the three years prior from 2014-17, Carter was scoring in the 60+ point range. Since then, his stats have taken a big hit and his goals have been halved.

Surely GM Ron Hextall who has spent a lot of time with Carter in the Flyers and Kings organization is very comfortable and has a deep knowledge of this player. It does feel very valid to wonder just what he has left in the tank, though.

The addition of Jeff Carter will give the Pens an extra big body, as promised from the front office, and more options. Carter has won the Stanley Cup twice. He’s got an Olympic gold medal. It’s a good add to the room, and the Pens are a team that over the years have always done better when there is a more veteran leader than the Crosby/Malkin core to be a voice and have a presence, whether it’s been Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz or Matt Cullen.

At best, Carter would be a lot like the Cullen addition — a former 1st/2nd line scorer that is in a depth role in Pittsburgh at the end of his career who can step up and make plays and help the team when it counts.

At worst, Carter would be more like a Patrick Marleau or 2011 Alex Kovalev pickup for a vet at the end of his rope who doesn’t have a lot left to contribute.

Hextall, for his first trade as the head of the Pens, is clearly banking on more of the first scenario.

The other very fascinating component of this trade is what it means for the future. Carter’s contract runs through 2021-22, and the Kings have retained 50% of his contract. That means the Pens add a $2.7 million cap hit for next season on Carter for his age 36/37 season. That’s not ideal.

But Carter might not be playing next season. As Lisa Dillman of The Athletic wrote:

Depending upon how things go with the Penguins this year, there is a chance Carter could simply retire at the end of the season.

If this deal is actually a “rental” where the player wants to load up for one more run at a Cup and call it a career, this trade becomes a lot more favorable for the Penguins financially speaking. Due to the complicated NHL CBA rule about “cap recapture” (basically to punish teams who signed players to long contracts in the prior CBA if the player retired early), the calculation would benefit Pittsburgh and would actually open up a slight amount of cap space if Carter retires this off-season.

If this is the unannounced plan, all parties would likely know this going into the deal that this is Carter’s last hurrah and he doesn’t plan on playing next season in Pittsburgh and will return to Southern California where he has developed significant roots and familial ties. This makes sense on some level, and could be a clear reason why the fourth round pick is involved.

In recent days teams like the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings have received a fourth round pick for other trades to eat some cap room, which the going rate has been about $250k-$330k of cap space for the rest of the season. That’s pretty in-line with the Pens giving up a fourth to open up $381k for next season.

So taking the multi-faceted way to grade this trade for the Pens:

Cost: B+ (A 2nd or 3rd round pick is a fair price to pay)
On-ice Value: C-ish? (Easy to punt, but depends heavily on what Carter has left in the tank)
Need: B- (Pens are banged up now on the wing, this helps for the stretch)
Salary Cap Impact A...or F (If Carter retires after this year, this trade improves for the Penguins heavily to gain $381k of cap space next year. That’s great. However, if Carter plans to play and the Pens have to pay a 37 year old a $2.7 million cap hit that would be a tough $3+ million swing in the wrong direction)