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Carter and the kids: Inside Kings dynamic line

by Adam Kimelman

At 29 years old and with fewer than 650 games played in the NHL, Jeff Carter isn't the ideal for a veteran mentor.

But for young linemates Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, Carter has served as a role model and a motivator as the three forwards have formed the most offensively explosive line in the first month of the NHL season for the Los Angeles Kings.

Entering their game Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, SN360, TVA SPORTS2), Pearson (seven goals), Carter (five) and Toffoli (five) have combined for 17 of the Kings' 23 goals this season.

Pearson's seven goals are tied for third in the League; Toffoli's 13 points are tied for third; Carter's 12 points are tied for fifth. Carter was named NHL First Star of the Week on Monday after he had two goals and four assists in two games last week.

"They're playing amazing for us, no doubt about that," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "With a lot of our other guys not scoring, they've been carrying our team."

The line was assembled during the Kings run to the Stanley Cup last spring and helped lead Los Angeles to its second title in three seasons.

Toffoli and Pearson had been linemates with Manchester of the American Hockey League, so keeping them together in the NHL made sense; placing them with a center with Carter's skill level made the line dynamic.

"Sometimes there's just that chemistry that hits," said Michael Futa, Kings vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel. "[Toffoli and Pearson] are kids that were knocked initially for their skating. They've worked on their conditioning, their pace. … and when they threw Carter there in the middle, everything seemed to click all at once. Jeff is an incredibly responsible player who plays the game at an incredible pace. It's not too often you have a line where they're all really dangerous shooters. And the puck really flies off all their sticks. You have to be aware of their pace, of their work ethic on the wall and the fact that they could be shooting from everywhere.

"Usually on a line there's one guy who's the passer, one guy who's the shooter and one guy that is the digger. They all seem to be willing to dig for each other and they can shoot from anywhere. Fortunate for us they had a great run last year in winning the Stanley Cup and they haven't missed from where they left off."

Pearson had four goals and 12 points in 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games -- one fewer game than he played in the regular season in 2013-14 -- and has been the biggest goal producer on the line. He credits his productive postseason run for his hot start this season.

"Even from being up and down last year, gaining confidence every time I went back up and working on stuff when I get sent down," Pearson said. "That last stretch, into the playoffs, that really helped my game turn around."

Toffoli had ridden the same Los Angeles-to-Manchester shuttle, but the 2014 playoffs saw the 22-year-olds evolve into go-to players.

"Both those kids learned that if you're going to come up and be partially ready you're not going to play for Darryl Sutter," Futa said. "If you're going to come up and be all-in with regard to all the different zones of the ice, with the way you're going to look after your body, you're going to be physically ready. They both had their time where they were sent down. Tyler [played in the 2013 playoffs] then started the [next] year in the American league. He wasn't ready. Tanner came up the first time and it was a brief stay, he went back down and in his first game back down he had a hat trick. … None of these guys went down and moped. They did what was necessary to be everyday NHL hockey players."

Adding Carter, now in his 10th NHL season, has proven to be the finishing touch.

"He's a great role model for them," Futa said. "He's the ultimate pro right now with regard to the way he handles himself off the ice."

Carter said he's enjoyed being the voice of experience for his younger linemates.

"It's been fun for me," Carter said. "I don't really have to do too much with those guys. They know what to do. They play the game right way. It's been a lot of fun."

Carter might downplay his role, but Pearson and Toffoli know how important he has been to their success.

"When we're not playing well he's making sure we're staying in the game and we're going out the next shift with a purpose to get back on track and play the way we're capable of playing," Toffoli said. "And I think he's done a real good job of that with me and Tanner."

The Kings front office also has seen Carter mature as a leader in his four seasons in Los Angeles.

"I was fortunate enough to know him when he was a quiet under-17 kid," Futa said. "He's the ultimate pro now. … He's the first guy who's at the rink in the morning. His physical testing is off the charts. I still try and picture him with his little blonde hair and glowing teeth. Now he doesn't have any teeth, got scars. His mug looks like a handsome Gerry Cheevers mask. He's just been through it all. The stuff that he's played through, the injuries he's played through, it's like he found new life when he came over from Columbus and everybody has benefitted from him.

"The way he presents himself, he's a quiet guy but his words are golden when he talks about his experience. He can talk about American league champion, Olympic gold medals. When he talks, people listen because he's not only been a part of those teams, he's been a major part of those teams. It's good for the kids."

It hasn't been all that good for the opposition. During the Kings recent six-game homestand, the line combined for 14 goals and 30 points as Los Angeles went 6-0-0.

With top scorers Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik missing time with injuries, the Kings have needed the Carter-Toffoli-Pearson line to be a factor each game. They've responded so far; only twice in the Kings first nine games were all three kept off the score sheet, and in both games Los Angeles was shut out.

Kings center Mike Richards has known Carter since they were opponents in the Ontario Hockey League. They broke into the NHL together in 2005 with the Philadelphia Flyers and arrived in Los Angeles within months of each other during the 2011-12 season. He sees Carter and his linemates as the driving force for the Kings right now.

"He [Carter] is getting better with age," Richards said. "He's probably one of the top five players in the League, for sure top 10 right now. It's fun watching their line out there with the two young kids and how he pulls them along, demands the best out of them. I don't know if it's the leadership role or you're put in that position where you have two young guys playing with you and you have to pull them out of fights some nights. But you'll see; it's fun to watch that line."


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