To begin this piece, I want to point out something relatively obvious. Carter has been struggling this year. Injuries, including a nagging foot, and a separated shoulder have kept him from gaining any form of competitive edge, and forced him out of the lineup for 19 regular season games (just shy of 40% of the regular season). Despite all of his time injured, he still managed to score ten goals, which laughably remains second on the team. I'll get more into this later on in the post.
To suggest he has had a fair look in Columbus is ridiculous; Injuries, very little time to build chemistry, and a depth of speculation that is quite embarrassing even for Columbus. While I am far from personally faulting him for an off year, I thought it would be good to take some time to compare his pros and cons in order to gain a better representation of why I think he should be a part of this organization for years to come.
- I find it strange that so many folks in the media are claiming his contract is a 'tough pill to swallow' for teams interested in him. In my opinion, especially in Columbus, it's a huge plus. He is signed for a decade, at a cap hit of roughly 5.27 million dollars. That is less than 'stud' defenseman James Wisniewski, 2.5 million less than Rick Nash, and just over a half million more than Umberger's five year extension that is about to kick in next season (Umberger has three more points in fourteen additional games, and has arguably been one of Columbus' biggest on ice disappointments this year). Not only is this contract entirely reasonable, it solves Columbus' major issue with bringing in free agent talent without having to overpay. --Don't even get me started on that
- With that cap hit, comes the potential of a forty goal scorer (not named Rick Nash). With the exclusion of this year, Carter has averaged just over 38 goals per season over his last three years, with his career best 46 goals coming in the 08/09 season. For a team in great need for offense, it shocks me that such a player would be not given a boatload of chances in order to recover from injury, and his relocation.
- Finally, his play with the puck. For years, Columbus' best option on ice for 'wow' moments have been at the hands of Nash. Even in his limited time on ice this year, Carter has impressed me with his ability to shift past defensemen with a quality deke, or take a tremendous wrist shot that can fool a goalie from any angle. Frankly, his on ice capacity with the puck is one of his greater assets, and worth watching regardless of his output. I have demanded for a long time that this team put emphasis on an entertaining on ice product rather than a boring, structured (read: Hitchcock) style of play. I think Carter can bring that element just as well as Rick Nash when he has the puck.
- He's not a media darling. Despite all the controversy, he has not seemed even remotely inclined to get his face in the middle of it. And such is life. Some players, like the Wiz, are great for a sound bite or twenty, while others are more designed to simply play the game. If Columbus was pursuing another guy to win over the fan base with riveting interviews, Carter was clearly the wrong choice.
- He was openly disappointed about his trade. But let's be honest, if you committed to something for over a decade at a discounted rate, only to have that connection removed, wouldn't you feel the same? I can understand his disappointment when he was dealt from a team primed to make the playoffs to a team struggling to find its' identity, and unfortunately he has not been able to allow his on ice play do the talking for him this year.
- He's not (or at least doesn't appear to be) a vocal leader. Again, some top tier players are designed to take the team on their shoulders verbally or mentally (see: Toews, Nash), while others tend to focus more on their own game, and I feel like Carter is more in that second classification. With that said, I personally don't believe he was brought in to be a vocal leader. He was brought in to be a scoring threat, and a potential number one center than Columbus has lacked for so long.
It's with those assumptions in mind that I think Carter is worth another year of consideration before making a deal. I support the opinion that behind Nash, he would stand to be the teams best asset for trade, but his on ice production could be more valuable than his return at this point. I look at next year, and I see a team that could be cleaned out at the bottom end (3rd and 4th line), and overhauled defensively and in net. With that in mind, I think the following line considerations should be made rather than bolstering what I believe to be a potentially successful offense:
Nash - Brassard - Carter
Top 2 pick - Johansen - Kubalik/Atkinson
Nash - Brassard - Johansen
Top 2 pick - Carter - Kubalik/Atkinson
That is an assumptive top two pick of course, but at this point it would take a pretty impressive turnaround for Columbus to fall out of a top two pick. This would potentially bring in Nail Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko who have presented themselves as top quality talent, worthy of a second line start in the NHL. This roster move also bolsters the third line with Umberger, and allows Columbus to part ways with players like Pahlsson(2.65mil), Huselius(4.75mil), Prospal(2.5mil), and potentially Vermette(3.75mil), which could open the door for defensive or goaltender spending on the cap. Removing those four alone would generate 13.65 million in cap space, with only Pahlsson to replace in the current lineup (based on my suggested line combos above, and the entry level cap hit for Yakupov/Grigorenko).
I also recognize there is little visible chemistry between Nash and Carter, but given Brassard's play of late with Nash, I believe that Carter could move to wing (where he has been very successful in the past) and Brassard's speed would help to push the pace. This gives a playmaker like Brassard the ability to look to both wings as scoring threats, and can seriously open up space in the offensive zone. If that doesn't work, Carter can slide down to the second line and create offense where Columbus isn't used to seeing it. provided he is given players on his wing who can get the puck on his stick, he can enjoy a year of playing secondary defenders and exploiting second rate defensive mistakes.
In short, I think Carter deserves a full, healthy year look before Columbus gives up on him. While I can see the positive out of dealing him for prospects and budding talent now, I believe it comes at a time where knee-jerk reactions are only going to work against the short term success of this franchise. Give him time to build some chemistry within the team, and get to know the city of Columbus better. He may eventually fall in love with it.
Carry the Flag!