Have you ever had to make a decision when all of the logical information pointed towards one conclusion, but you couldn’t shake the feeling of uncertainty? Maybe you were buying a car—a car that had everything you wanted and you negotiated a great price; but you keep thinking about how your friend bought the same car and had a ton of problems. Maybe you were dating someone and they filled all the requirements—they were funny, smart, and beautiful; but there was a certain something that always held you back from taking the next step.
Sometimes there’s more to a decision than the obvious information that’s presented. Sometimes you have to balance the obvious information that pushes you one way against the shady uncertainty that clouds the situation. Maybe it’s a gut feeling. Maybe it’s something you heard. Maybe it’s something that’s in the past. Regardless, it’s something that makes a clear-cut decision, well, not so clear-cut.
If you take a look at the advanced stats that Moneypuckers constantly tout, Jeff Carter should be one of the most valued players in the entire league. He’s an outstanding two-way player, he scores goals, and he plays against tough competition. On top of the pure stats, he’s capable of playing both center and the wing, he’s made a run to the Stanley Cup Final, and at 27 years of age, he should be entering his peak production years.
Yet he was just traded for a work-in-progress, still-developing defenseman and a first round draft pick. It was the second time he was traded in the last eight months.
So what gives?
There are a lot of pros involved in this deal for the Kings. They were able to acquire a guy who has scored 33 goals in each of the last three seasons, has shown he’s capable of being an elite sniper, can play a better two-way game than most people think, and has shown chemistry with both Simon Gagne and Mike Richards over the last five years.
The Kings don’t have much offensive talent on the roster. The high-end offensive talent they do possess (like Kopitar, Richards, Loktionov) tend to be playmakers rather than snipers. And a quick look at the Kings shows that for all the organization depth the team has built on the blueline, the cupboard is painfully bare when it comes to elite-level forwards. As Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi said after the trade:
“This isn’t a rental. This isn’t your classic trade deadline deal…This is a good young player for a good young player. This is a hockey deal.” (via Sports Illustrated)
For all the good (and bad) that Carter brings to the table, the man shoots the puck and scores goals. Over the last three years, the man has scored 115 goals and had at least 319 shots on goal in each season. The only guy in the entire league who has more shots on goal is that Ovechkin cat in Washington. And none of this even takes into account the 29 goal season that Carter had in 2007-08. For perspective, his 29 goals would have been third on the Kings that season and his 260 shots would have easily been the most in Los Angeles.
And that was before Carter came into his own as an offensive player.
His availability really is the perfect storm for the Kings—as Helene Elliott and Lisa Dillman said, it was the joining of “one disgruntled forward and one desperate team.” Carter is the disgruntled sniper, the Kings employ his best friend, and the organization desperately needs someone with his particular skill set. He’s the perfect offensive fit for the team that desperately needs offensive help. Not only were the Kings bad offensively—they were historically bad. 2.06 goals per game made them one of the most inept offensive teams in NHL history (and despite the extremely small sample size, Carter is already paying dividends).
Ordinarily, the offensive stats alone would be enough to convince a desperate organization. But in this situation, there’s a bonus for the eager Kings—is an incredibly underrated two-way forward. Just last season, SBNPhilly.com broke down Jeff Carter’s all-around game:
“Carter is sent out for defensive zone faceoffs (which he wins more than most players in the league) AND drives the play forward. He turns a potential scoring chance against into a potential scoring chance for. This is phenomenal.”
But don’t get too giddy Kings fans—there’s more. Fans and statisticians may have taken note of Carter’s Moneypuck exploits last season, but it wasn’t the first year he had thrived in all areas of the game. It was just the first year that people started talking about it.
“And surprisingly, last year wasn’t anything new. In fact, that’s what he had been doing for most of his last four seasons in Philly: “In three of the last four years, Carter has been used extensively in his own end against top-line competition. The story here isn’t that Carter stepped up his defensive game this year; it’s that we’re finally appreciating that side of his game. This year has been arguably his most effective, but he has been handling tough assignments for most of his career.”
Just to recap: he’s been asked to play tough minutes in his own zone, he plays against the toughest of competition, thrives in all three zones, and he’s a proven NHL sniper. That’s the player the Kings got on February 23rd.
On the flip side, Jack Johnson represents everything that Jeff Carter is not (from a statistical point of view). After a quick offensive start last season that earned him a 7-year contract, Johnson has slid back into the wildly inconsistent offensive player that he’s been for his entire career.
Unfortunately, the inconsistent offensive side of the game is the positive here for the Blue Jackets. Defensively, Johnson has been among the worst defensemen in the league over the last four seasons. Not one of the worst defenseman on the Kings—one of the worst defensemen in the entire NHL. Jonathan Willis from Hockey Prospectus breaks it down:
“Despite the comparatively easy checking assignments, Johnson can’t seem to help racking up goals against. Before the trade, he was a minus-12, the worst number of any Kings defenseman. This isn’t a new distinction for Johnson; since his first full NHL season in 2007-08, he has had the worst plus-minus on the Kings’ blue line each and every year. In fact, since 2007-08, no player on any team in the league has a worse cumulative plus/minus than Johnson’s minus-85 rating. The closest competitor for this not-so-coveted honor was New York Islander Brendan Witt at minus-65; he ended his career demoted to the AHL in 2010.”
In trading Jack Johnson, the Kings saw the biggest problem on the blueline moved for an asset that their team desperately needs. Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov have proven that they’re NHL caliber defensemen, Davis Drewiske would probably play on half the teams in the NHL, and Thomas Hickey and Nic Deslauriers continue to impress in the AHL. In addition to those five young blueliners in the professional ranks, 2010 1st round pick Derek Forbort has continued to progress at the University of North Dakota and Kevin Gravel had a chance to make Team USA for the recent World Junior Championship tournament in December.
The Kings have defensive depth that is the envy of just about every organization in the NHL. Not only can the Kings replace Johnson on the blueline, but the advanced stats said they would actually improve defensively once someone else (anyone else) replaced him on the ice. It didn’t matter who filled the void—all that mattered was that Johnson was removed. Yes, his stats were that bad. It’s scary that the Kings’ third ranked defense should actually get better now that their biggest defensive liability is gone.
The forward Los Angeles acquired is a good defensive forward and consistently puts the puck in the net; the defenseman they traded was consistently the worst blueliner on the team since he arrived in 2007 and is inconsistent (at best) in the offensive zone.
Using objective measures, that’s the trade that went down.
So what gives? Why were there so many fans and media members said this was a victory for the Blue Jackets? Well, there are a few reasons. First, not everyone understands advanced stats. More importantly, not everyone cares about advanced stats. As Mark Twain said, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Of course, there is far more to hockey and trades than can be explained with Microsoft Excel, shot charts, and zone starts.
This is where we get into some serious grey area about both players—specifically Jeff Carter. But let’s first start with Jack Johnson…
We’re paraphrasing here, but someone near the team told us before the season that Johnson ALWAYS made the wrong decision on the ice. In the offensive zone, he said, Johnson had an uncanny ability to pass when he should shoot and shoot when he should pass. In the defensive zone, Johnson would regularly take the wrong guy down low or fail to defend an attacking player in front of the net. It’s not just the shots against that he allowed when he’s out there—it’s the quality of chances that he allows.
Why? Why do people who watch him think he is such a liability? Why do the advanced stats look so strangely skewed against him?
We’ve all heard about players that make their teammates better. Unfortunately, Johnson is the kind of player that is the antithesis to this concept: he actually makes his teammates worse by putting them in difficult situations on the ice.
One reason for the slow development and on-ice struggles in his own zone could go all the way back to the way he was taught the game at the University of Michigan. Against college-level players, Johnson was given free-reign to play as he pleased. His skill-set was so far above his contemporaries, he could get by on talent alone. In fact, it was this talent and these raw skills that made scouts drool and the Hurricanes select him with the third overall pick in 2005.
Lombardi said as much when he talked to Gann Matsuda at FrozenRoyalty.net in 2010. Here’s what he had to say about Johnson’s time and development in Ann Arbor:
“Jack was a thoroughbred out there. But he was all over the place. He was awful as a hockey player. As an athlete, you’re going, wow! Look at the way he skates, shoots, he can pass. But he had no idea where he was going.”
Defensemen take longer to develop, so there’s a chance that Johnson will pull it together in the coming years. Take a look at that seven-year contract and he should have plenty of time to figure it out. But just going off what we know right now, the Blue Jackets paid a huge price for a guy who still needs to figure it out.
The Jeff Carter situation
Let’s be honest: the only reason this trade was even considered by the Blue Jackets is because Jeff Carter pouted his way out of Columbus (even if he says that “isn’t completely true“). If he handled the offseason like a professional and embraced the new challenge, there’s a very good chance he would have played for the next decade in Nationwide Arena. Then again, Carter’s actions probably didn’t come as much of a surprise to the Philadelphia Flyers:
““As one NHL executive told me recently, the Flyers aren’t stupid. They’re a smart, successful franchise that does things for a reason. When they trade two cornerstone pieces in one day – even if they are clearing salary-cap space for free-agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, even if they have a young stud at center in Claude Giroux – it raises a red flag.
And the way Carter handled the trade – disappearing for days afterward, needing Jackets officials to come visit him, being less than enthusiastic in his new home – turned off people in Columbus and beyond, for good reason.” –Nick Cotsonika, Yahoo! Sports
And herein lies the problem: there is no spreadsheet that accounts for personal behavior. Who knew that the Blue Jackets were going to acquire an oft-injured malcontent that was going to make the situation so uncomfortable, the team would feel the need to trade him after only 39 games?
In Columbus, Carter felt like he was a square peg, and made it clear that he would never want to be forced into a round hole. Howson, like just about everyone else in the NHL, understood that there was no fixing the situation.
“Sometimes, things don’t work they way you want them to and you have to move on,” Howson said. “And you have to move on quickly.”
Because for all of the stats that say Carter is an elite NHL forward, none of them account for the reasons he was sent packing from Philadelphia eight months ago—nor do they address the fact that Carter never tried to fit in with his new team in Columbus. Howson acknowledged the struggle during the press conference to officially announce the trade:
“I think Jeff struggled with this, right from the outset. He made a long-term commitment in Philadelphia; it was hard for him to deal with this trade. I thought he came in with an open attitude, the season got off on the wrong foot, we couldn’t get on the winning track, he got injured early, and I think just as the season went on and on, we decided that it might be the right thing to try and make a move with him.”
This is exactly why the trade isn’t a slam dunk victory for the Kings. In fact, this is why there were more than a few insiders and fans alike that had reservations about the trade. As much as the “Moneypuck advocates” would like to disagree, there are those in the media and front offices that pay attention to advanced stats and still make judgments using all the information available—not just statistics.
This just in: General Managers are usually smarter about hockey than the rest of us.
In this case, it was important for the Kings to balance the encouraging value of Carter’s unbelievably underappreciated stats against the hazard of his well-publicized off-ice exploits. Like any other industry, it’s all about handling assets and managing risk.
Instead of blinding taking a forward who could help his team score, Lombardi had to do his due diligence to make sure he was properly informed of the potential risks. After all—if this decision goes sideways, it will adversely affect the organization for the next decade (no hyperbole—literally 10 years).
“I think it’s obvious that John Stevens, who coached Jeff, obviously is very familiar with him,” Lombardi said in a media conference call. “So that’s first-hand, behind-the-bench, knowledge of a player which we were fortunate enough to have here. It’s probably safe to say, given that so many people here are tied to Philly, that we are fortunate that we could do some research here…”
It’s not just assistant coach John Stevens that has firsthand knowledge of Carter. Lombardi also has firsthand experience with Carter from his time in Philadelphia—the experience puts Lombardi in a unique position to pull the trigger when other GMs may have shied away.
“Part of it is my own personal experience, from when I was in Philly,” Lombardi explained. “[Like] driving to the rink with him when he was with the Phantoms. I’m sorry I can’t go into more. I’ve had a lot of personal contact with him, on a lot of levels, and we’re fortunate to have access to it. Again, some of it is my own first-hand [knowledge], having been there when he broke in as a pro. Here’s the other thing too, that we’re banking on. When we did the deal in the summer [for Mike Richards], I think I said this to a couple writers at the time—I think a lot of this stuff really got blown out of proportion…”
There is no statistic or independent metric that can substitute for Lombardi’s relationship with Carter that goes back to his AHL days. There’s a familiarity level in play that supersedes statistics—and for Lombardi, any baggage that may have accompanied Carter on his flight to LA.
“Knowing these kids as people, deep down, I think they are your classic Canadian boys who will dream of winning the Stanley Cup,” Lombardi admitted. “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. That’s my speech on human nature—but I firmly believe it.”
Lombardi’s relationship explains the reason that the Kings were willing to take the risk when talking heads like Mike Milbury and Craig Button (both former GMs) were so hesitant. He knew Carter. He knows the type of guys he was when he was coming up through the ranks to the NHL, and just as importantly, understands what he can bring to the team. Not only is he a scorer, he’s a proven that he can win.
“Jeff has proven he is a winner,” Lombardi said, “with the way he has come up and seeing what he has done with the Phantoms and breaking in with Philly, and the World Juniors. So it’s in him. You just always hope, with young people, that they never lose that despite the fact that everything is secure. That said, it’s just one of the quirks in the system. If that player plays like he’s capable of, and you’ve got an AAV of 5.2m for that caliber of player that’s very advantageous. So that’s your tradeoff. You’ve got a huge risk here, that this player is going to be committed to being the best he can be despite the financial security. That’s the risk, but the payoff is you get a heck of a player and you’ve got a 5.2 cap hit.”
Only time will tell if Carter and his cap hit will fit in LA. Like Lombardi said, ten years is a long time for a player who could easily fall into a pattern of complacency. But if there was anyone who could make an educated, enlightened decision in this case, it would be Lombardi.
The Kings have talked for years about how they’ve built a strong locker room with leadership and character. If they did as good of a job as they think they did, then bringing in a guy with a questionable past shouldn’t be an issue. The locker room should be strong enough to straighten out anyone who isn’t on the focused on the team’s singular goal.
At this point, that’s the only sobering question mark left around the trade. If Jeff Carter can smoothly integrate himself into the Kings lineup and put his off-ice exploits behind him, the Kings may have found the player they’ve desperately needed since the lockout.
Then again, that’s a pretty big “if.” If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.