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June 6, 2013 | 11:30am ET

Carter's Last Laugh
 The Los Angeles Kings' power forward has been the one constant throughout a rocky defense of their championship.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Though the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup victory was a team effort, they couldn’t have done it without one crucial asset.

The team’s playoff destiny was forever changed on Feb. 23, 2012 when GM Dean Lombardi went all in and acquired Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Starving for scoring throughout the 2011-12 season, Lombardi surrendered sturdy defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick for the man he hoped would return to the 30+ goal scorer he was prior to his arrival in Ohio. Along with the luxury price tag (still nine years left on a $58 million, 11-year deal), came the superlatives of a talent whose career high of 46 goals has been matched by few in the current day NHL:

“Rare combination of size and speed”

“Wrist shot as good as any”

“Pure, natural goal scorer”

While those facts are indisputable, there’s another trait that attaches itself to a player that bounces from Philadelphia to Columbus then to Los Angeles in eight months and its called baggage.

The whispers that settled around Carter is what made Lombardi’s deal the riskiest in his tenure and could have cost him his just if it didn’t pay off.

“He’s soft”

“He’s bad in the room”

“He won’t play through injury”

There were far worse accusations, but absent of any proof we’ll spare you the details because most hockey fans have heard them all before.

A man of few words when available to the media, Carter's actions speak far louder since donning the Crown hard by the Pacific shores. His appearance in Game 3 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals marked his 100th match (regular season and playoffs combined) in the Black and White.

At the century mark, he’s scored 46 goals, many clutch, 12 of them game winners with the most memorable being the Game 2 Finals winner in New Jersey. With all-world talent housed in a 6 foot 4 inch, 210 pound frame, Los Angeles was a the perfect and truth be told, the only place where Carter could have returned to an elite level.

The primary reasons for recapturing his full potential are twofold; the well-publicized “bromance” with the dude he grew up in the Flyers organization, Mike Richards. Cast out of Pennsylvania and demonized in many quarters, Richards and Carter have made it to the Final Four three of the past four seasons, a rare feat in the present climate of NHL parity.

With Mike as the facilitator, Jeff set a blazing pace early this season that garnered him the nickname of “Cy Young” due to the disparity between the totals of his goals to assists (I doubt he cares about his assist total). The chemistry between the two both on and off the ice is a key to their Los Angeles championship and Carter’s continued production.

The second reason is less visible but may be as large a contributor to his success. Organizationally, the Kings keep a tight ship on player availability and access by the media. The running joke between our colleagues in the press box is what the over/under will be in players available in the post-game locker room and that number is always in the low single digits. Both Richards and Carter were available early in their tenures, but are now rarely seen in the locker room, even on non-game days.

With the hammering both players received by the Philadelphia media (we won’t judge if it was warranted), it makes perfect sense to shield these two from daily media scrutiny. You can argue the responsibility of the player to be available to talk to the media, but the league rules only state that the room has to be open after the game and any particular player’s attendance is discretionary. I did a long interview with Richards upon his arrival in Los Angeles and my interaction with Carter has been limited, but never adversarial to me or any other member of the media in my presence.

Does the removal of these two players from the spotlight enhance their play? You can debate that all you like, but the approach hasn’t hurt their performance.

It’s not like these players are unaware of the commentary, whether good or bad, they know what is being written and the tone of the opinions. While players may not read stories about them directly, I guarantee you that a wife, girlfriend, uncle or buddy has. Some players have active Twitter accounts and monitor them daily; league execs have disguised ones, so the reality is that everyone is plugged into what is written, spoken and tweeted about this team.

If you’ve done an interview with Carter, you realize his skill on ice far exceeds his post-game analyst skills, so we’re missing little by his lack of recanting a game winning goal. The lack of access is further minimized by willingness of those like Rob Scuderi, Dustin Brown, Jarret Stoll and oh-how-we-miss Willie Mitchell to chat you up, win or lose.

With the Kings’ organization setting him up to win, the final exclamation point on Carter season has been the leadership he’s demonstrated in the most challenging series in the Kings last two post seasons. With Richards getting hammered at the end of Game 1 on a hit that many feel earned supplementary discipline, Carter slid in to the void created in the pivot flanked by Dustin Penner and rookie Tyler Toffoli. As good as he’s been on right wing, he’s been more effective as a center, creating open ice for him and his teammates. He scored the Kings’ first goal in Game 2 and registered assists on two goals in a win that got the Kings back into the series. The newly-combined trio has been the best Darryl Sutter can offer with the continuing struggles of Anze Kopitar reaching a point where his coach had no choice but to place him on the third line for the first Los Angeles tilt.

But the play that will be recalled as the weeks roll on will be the high sticking incident with Duncan Keith, which demonstrates that Carter is the gamer that many at his other stops tell you he isn’t.

In a play that started inconsequentially, Keith paid some heavy dues when his anger got the best of him. The resulting stick swing to Carter’s mouth was both dangerous and careless and as a repeat offender, Keith should consider himself lucky that the Shanaban was only for Game 4 and not longer. The blow sent Carter immediately to the ice. After he slowly rose, he skated to the locker room for repairs.

Not soon after he returned to the bench minus a couple of teeth and a dental bridge but the proud new owner of 20 stitches in his mouth. Even with the battering, he managed to win 62% of his faceoffs, a must have for the Kings as the likelihood of Richards returning from his head injury is low for this series.

Like it or not, due to injuries and ineffectiveness suffered by his teammates, he’s become a leader in the room and I’d venture to guess that he truly likes it.

So while safely nestled in his home by the beach with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and his future financially secured, Jeff Carter has had the last, though presently broken-toothed laugh.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




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