For teams that struggled to win consistently, the 1986-87 Kings certainly did not lack a scoring punch.
Beyond Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne, who finished his final Kings campaign with 74 points in 67 games prior to his March, 1987 trade to the New York Rangers, there was eventual 475-goal man Bernie Nicholls, there was Dave Taylor, there was Jim Fox.
There was also a pair of rookies who made an instant impact and changed the trajectory of the organization, 18-year-old Jimmy Carson and 20-year-old Luc Robitaille.
But at the time, that was virtually all they had. A collection of highly productive young forwards – though Taylor was 31 that season and Dionne was 35 – was not enough to off-set challenges in depth and on the blue line and in goal, and much more pervasively, a lack of expectations or culture of winning.
“We were very talented offensively, pre-Gretzky trade,” Carson said. “There was a lot of talk about this really young, good, up-and-coming team, and I think we were showing that. Now, there was stuff that we would have had to work on, pieces of the puzzle, but based on the age of some of the younger guys, and the nucleus of the older guys, we could go toe-to-toe offensively with a lot of teams.”
Robitaille and Carson did just that in their first tenure playing together. After Robitaille’s 45-goal, 84-point rookie season in 1986-87, the two finished atop the team lead in scoring the very next year, with Robitaille finishing with 53 goals and 111 points and Carson with 55 and 107. They were offensive zeniths surpassed only by the most extreme single-season examples of team production from players such as Wayne Gretzky, Charlie Simmer, or in Robitaille and Nicholls’ career years.
Carson, who had the speed, playmaking ability and precision to shoot off the rush, was an ideal player to play alongside Robitaille during the freewheeling mid-1980’s Smythe Division that serves as a sharp contrast to the tight-checking and structurally airtight system play so prevalent in today’s game.
“I think that was a good match,” Carson said of the marriage between his play and the notoriously up-tempo Smythe. “The game was a lot more open back then and I was a good scorer and play-maker and that did match well. Our young and up-coming team at the time had a similar skill-set, so I think it was a good match overall.”
It was one that was ephemeral as it was explosive. Though Robitaille would go on to wear a Kings jersey for 14 seasons and have his number 20 raised to the rafters, Carson was included in a league-redefining transaction as the key player transferred to Edmonton when Los Angeles netted Wayne Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley in August, 1988.
The trade, an unexpected and instant disruption in the rhythm of a player who to that point had compiled a pair of outstanding teenage campaigns, was a stunning blow towards his perceived entrenchment as a long-time King and as a part of a team with a stable of young offensive stars to build a neighborhood around. Kings owner Bruce McNall had previously told Carson to purchase a house in that area, a decree that still carries weight in its inaccuracy some 28 years later.
“When the owner says ‘go buy a house, oh and by the way my wife is an interior decorator and she’ll help you outfit the house,’ … the farthest thing in your mind is getting traded,” Carson said. “I hadn’t been around long enough to know what I didn’t know, and maybe that was the kiss of death. It was very difficult, but it was the magnitude of the trade, you know, so what do you say? It was the largest trade in the history of sports.”
Carson thrived the following season on the ice with 49 goals and 100 points, but never felt comfortable in an Oilers sweater and ultimately moved on to his hometown Red Wings, and after another stunning trade in 1992-93, back to the Kings for 59 games as part of a trade that also brought Gary Shuchuk and Marc Potvin to Los Angeles as Paul Coffey, Sylvain Couturier and Jim Hiller were sent to Detroit.
“It was a great run, a great group of guys, a tremendously talented team, but it was a totally different feel than it was years earlier,” Carson said of the team’s 1993 run to the Stanley Cup Final. “This was a much more of a veteran team, it was much more of a like ‘you know, we need to win now, we’re not building for the future, we need to win now.’ It was a completely different feel, that’s the best way I can put it. Of course the media attention was a lot more because of Wayne, of course Wayne being there, and then Jari Kurri, you know all of the players that were there, the great players, it was just a complete different feel, a lot more high-profile than it was [previously].”
But that original trade from The Forum is one that stung, partially because of his friendship with Robitaille and his continued ties to the team with whom he had hit remarkable highs in his nascent NHL career.
“It was very hard, you know, Luc and I were very close, we remained close,” he said. “It was very hard because we were in the Smythe Division and we played them so much. So eight times in the regular season, and then we went seven games in the playoffs against the Kings, and you’re always back in LA, and I had my house there, and I had my friends there, I had people at the Forum, I had my old teammates, and it’s always, like, in your face. And then you would get up and leave, and you were the enemy, you were not part of the family. I don’t think ‘uncomfortable’ is the right word, but it was an odd feeling. There were a lot of times where I was like, ‘wow, I wish it never happened,’ but I didn’t mope about it or complain because that’s the business of hockey and the business of sports, it was just one of those things like ‘wow, this is something else.”
Described by his colleagues as intelligent and analytical – he currently works in the financial services arena, primarily dealing with high net worth clients – it’s an admirably broad and multi-faceted view that has been molded and sanded over time. When he addresses the Staples Center crowd on Monday when the Kings host the Vancouver Canucks in their third and final Legends Night of the season, he will do so with feelings of gratitude and appreciation.
“Those be my first two thoughts,” he said. “The Kings don’t have to do this, and I’m very appreciative, and I think the Kings are really building a great alumni family, and I think this is something that they’re doing to try to better that.”
“Will I be emotional? I don’t know, we’ll wait and see. I think I’ll be very touched, I have thought of a few things to say, they told me I don’t have a lot of time to talk, so I’m hoping I can get what I want in and thank the people that I want to and need to, but I think I’ll just be very grateful.”
Jimmy Carson, on his friendship with Luc Robitaille:
Luc and I have a very good friendship, and it transcends hockey. That’s what started it, we were teammates when we were rookies, linemates etc., but we were friends first and foremost, and I’m very proud of all that Luc’s accomplished off the ice, but I don’t look at him that way. I look at him as a friend and someone who I’ve shared a lot of good times together with, and sometimes when we’ve needed to vent or talk about stuff, we’ve kind of talk to each other about different stuff, so yeah, we have a very good friendship and we talk regularly. I remember something Marcel Dionne told me when we were rookies, and he said to me – now this will be different for Luc because he’s still involved in hockey - but I remember Marcel asked Luc and I, ‘you know when you’re done in your careers, you’re going to have played with hundreds if not thousands of players, and you think they’re all your best friends right now and it’s a great ride and enjoy every second of it, but when you’re done, how many people do you really think you’ll stay in touch with?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, that’s an interesting question.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, 20, 30, 50?’ And then I don’t know what Luc’s answer was but then Marcel said, ‘no, raise your right hand. It won’t even be the amount of fingers you have on your one hand.’ That’s how when everyone career ends, that’s how families become – you have wives, families, jobs, you move away, and you only keep in touch with a limited amount of people. And what Marcel was saying it that you only keep in touch with five or less people, and guess what? He’s right. On a regular basis, and Luc is one of the people that I’ve stayed in touch with, and that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of other people that I see regularly and I like and I talk to, but I mean stay in touch where you’re having regular conversation.