It was a relatively safe move because Hextall had a ton of familiarity with Carter due to their time together in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the Kings were eating a significant portion of Carter’s remaining contract over the remainder of the 2020-21 season and the entire 2021-22 season, and the asset cost was relatively low.
Given how much Carter’s production had declined in recent years expectations were low, but there was always the hope that a shift to a contender and a better offensive environment could bring back some of that goal scoring ability. Nobody could have possibly anticipated just how productive Carter would be. He was not only a great addition, he was one of the Penguins’ best players during the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs.
He scored 13 goals in 20 games (regular season and playoffs combined), gave them a dangerous third scoring line to balance the offense behind the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines, and looked like prime years Jeff Carter.
He was great. He was so great that the Penguins felt the need to protect him in the Seattle expansion draft, willingly losing Brandon Tanev and trading Jared McCann in the process.
With Malkin slated to miss the start of the season Carter’s presence on the roster takes on even more importance because he is going to have to begin as the second-line center. But whether he is playing in that role or as the third-line center with a healthy lineup we should still try to set a realistic expectation for what he can — and ultimately will — produce this season over a full season.
Because it is not going to be the pace we saw this past season.
There are really three main concerns to keep in mind here.
The first is the simple fact that he is going to be 37 years old, and there are not many 37 year olds scoring at 40-goal paces in the NHL over a full 82-game season. Especially when they have mostly been 20-goal scorers throughout the previous seasons.
The second is that he will no longer have McCann on his wing, a duo that was wildly productive this past season. Carter spent almost all of his time in Pittsburgh playing alongside McCann, and they were sensational. During the regular season that duo attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts when they were on the ice together and outscored teams by a 15-4 margin. It was also the Penguins’ best line in the playoffs, outscoring the New York Islanders by a 3-2 margin and again controlling possession. McCann now plays in Seattle (after he was taken from Toronto following the trade there) and the Penguins are going to have to find another winger that forms that sort of chemistry.
Will that happen with Kasperi Kapanen? Jason Zucker? Danton Heinen? Brock McGinn? We will have to find out.
Then there is probably the biggest red flag, which is the simple fact that during his time with the Penguins Carter scored on 24 percent of his shots on goal. He was riding an insane run of shooting luck that is never going to continue. Even when he was at his best he never scored that high of a percentage, and only twice in his career has topped 14 percent over a full season. And one of those seasons was the 2012-13 lockout shortened season. The other was the 2017-18 season when he played in just 28 games. He has never scored on more than 14 percent of his shots during a full season. So that number is going to definitely drop this season, and with that will come a decrease in goals.
That is not to say that it is all bad for Carter’s potential this season.
He showed this past season that he still has a lot of speed and he still has the shot that made him such a dangerous goal scorer throughout his career. And there is something to be said about going from a rebuilding Kings team that did not have a lot of talent around him to a team in Pittsburgh where he does. He would not be the first player in recent years to leave the Kings and see his offensive numbers spike. It also happened for Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and even Ilya Kovalchuk to a certain extent.
He also still has solid underlying numbers to build on. His possession numbers remain strong, and his shot volume has remained steady, hovering around the 2.5-3 shots per game mark. If he can maintain that level and shoots at a more normal level (think 10 percent) that would still put him around a 20-25 goal pace. If the Penguins can get that, plus strong possession numbers, for a $2.5 million salary cap hit they should be ecstatic with that whether he plays in a second-or third-line role.
That is probably the ceiling.
The floor is that the shot volume decreases along with the shooting percentage regression and they get 10 goals in little playmaking.