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West Side Story

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
The phone calls came exactly eight months apart, but the emotions couldn’t have been any different.

On the afternoon of June 24, 2011, Jeff Carter learned that he had been traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets. A half-hour later, Mike Richards, Carter’s close friend and teammate with the Flyers, was dealt to the Kings in a head-spinning duo of deals.

On Feb. 24, 2012, Kings coach Darryl Sutter called Richards into his office and asked a question.

``How would you like to play with Jeff Carter?’’ Sutter said.

No piece of fiction could match the reality. Carter and Richards had both been under long-term contracts in Philadelphia, and enjoyed playing together. When both were jettisoned to the Western Conference, as far apart as possible, who would of thought they would be reunited within a year?

``We never probably thought this would happen again, especially this quick,’’ Carter said. ``Obviously we’re both pleased with it. For me, coming to this team, I told Mike when he got traded here, `You’ve got a heck of a team. You’ve got a chance to win.’ So I’m excited to be a part of it. We’ve got a lot of work to do here, ahead of us, but I’m excited.’’

The Kings acquired Carter last week from Columbus, in exchange for Jack Johnson and a first-round draft pick, a steep price but one necessary to pay if the Kings wanted to address their scoring woes.

Carter is a former 40-goal scorer, and a three-time 30-goal scorer, and the Kings have scored the fewest goals in the league this season. Given that the lowest-scoring team hasn’t made the playoffs in more than 20 years, the Kings had to be bold, and they rocked the hockey world with the move.

``It’s been an interesting year,’’ Carter said. ``I couldn’t be happier right now. I’m on a great team, a team that has a chance to do some big things here. I’m just excited.’’

Things went sour quickly for Carter in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets quickly sunk to the bottom of the conference. Carter said he did not ask for a trade, but well before the trade deadline, reports surfaced that the Blue Jackets were entertaining offers for Carter.

The Kings tried to go even bigger, as they make a pitch for both Carter and high-scoring teammate Rick Nash, but in the days before the trade deadline, the Kings narrowed their focus to Carter.

With Carter under contract for 10 more seasons, the Blue Jackets didn’t need to move him. If Columbus general manager Scott Howson didn’t get a trade offer that impressed him, he could hold Carter until the summer or beyond, and see if the trade market improved. The onus was on the Kings.

``The one thing about it,’’ Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said, ``it’s not easy to go out on the marketplace and find a guy who has the potential to score 40 goals, who is 27 years old and has a cap number that is very favorable, in terms of me keeping this nucleus together.

``So, sure there’s been some questions on Jeff in the last year or two, but knowing him well from where we were, having (assistant coach) John Stevens, who coached him (in Philadelphia), and guys who played with him, putting it all together I think this is a good move for us.’’

Those ``things,’’ alluded to by Lombardi, had little to do with on-ice performance. Carter and Richards came under criticism in Philadelphia because of media reports about their outsized off-ice habits. The Flyers never addressed the reports, but the media consensus was that the Flyers traded Carter and Richards in order to create something of a regime change in the locker room.

If anyone could get the skinny on the situation, it would be Lombardi. Not only did he work -- before becoming Kings GM -- as a Flyers scout, but Stevens, assistant GM Ron Hextall and a handful of players have all been in the Flyers organization within the past decade.

In recent days, Richards referred to some of the Philadelphia media reports as lies, without offering any specifics. Without going into detail, Lombardi said he was satisfied that reuniting Carter and Richards would not be a problem for the Kings.

``Knowing these kids as people, deep down I think they are your classic Canadian boys who will dream of winning the Stanley Cup,’’ Lombardi said. ``That will never leave them. Get some stuff out of your system and get back on track. You’re banking on what’s deeply inside of them, and they can get sidetracked like any young person.’’

One thing that has never been disputed is Carter’s ability to put the puck in the net.

A first-round draft pick of the Flyers in 2003 -- No. 11 overall – after he completed a brilliant junior career, in which he scored 123 goals in 236 games, he then stepped directly into the AHL and helped the Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup championship on a team coached by Stevens.

Carter cracked the Flyers’ lineup at the start of next season and never left. In his third season, at age 23, he scored 29 goals. The next season, he scored 46 goals, the start of three consecutive seasons in which he topped 30 goals, one of which ended with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

``I played against Jeff in junior,’’ Kings captain Dustin Brown said. ``He’s a goal scorer and I think he’s definitely going to help our team in a lot of areas. He’s a big, strong, fast guy and he can shoot the puck.’’

Carter’s production dipped this season -- he had 15 goals in 39 games before being traded to the Kings -- but in Columbus he played center and was charged with being Nash’s set-up man. Carter has those skills, but his game is better served as a finisher because of his wicked, accurate wrist shot.

Trade-deadline moves are always a risk, but Carter brings the type of finishing skill that the Kings have lacked. He has yet to score in three games with the Kings, but did have a laser, medium-range wrist shot ring off the goalpost in Nashville on Monday.

``You can’t look to one guy and say, `He’s going to come in here and be the answer,’’’ defenseman Willie Mitchell said. ``Is he going to be part of the answer? Absolutely, but part of the answer is all of us doing a better job of putting some pucks in the back of the net.’’

With the Flyers, Carter came within one overtime goal of lifting the Stanley Cup. The Kings, at the start of this season, were seen by some pundits as Cup contenders, but now they find themselves in a fight simply to make the playoffs.

The result of that fight might be determined, in large part, by how effective Carter can be down the stretch.

 ``He’s a guy who finds the net quite often,’’ winger Justin Williams said. ``He finds spaces to get open and he’s got a world-class shot. A Canadian boy like Jeff, I know he wants to win the Stanley Cup. He’s been close, and everyone in here wants to win one too, so we’re happy to have him.’’
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