Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Carter's metamorphosis

Flyers, Jackets gave up on Kings sniper way too early

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One man's beat-up Samsonite is another's Louis Vuitton. Meet Jeff Carter and his Stanley Cup-pedigreed baggage.

Some luggage has style and value and stays in the family for years. Some finds its way to the end of the driveway on a drizzly garbage day.

The Philadelphia Flyers decided a little too early to put Carter on the baggage tram to nowhere. So did the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi went and rescued Carter from a short stint in Columbus to team him with his old Flyers running mate, Mike Richards.

The move came early in the winter of 2012 and put the final piece in place for a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that spring.

Carter was labelled a malcontent in Philadelphia and Columbus. In Los Angeles he became a Cup winner and a reborn sniper with a ticket to Sochi just waiting to get punched.

"I've known him a long time. When he got to Philly, I was working there and he used to get rides to the rink from me because we were staying in the same area. I knew he was a good kid," said Lombardi Friday.

"The stuff they said about him in Philly, he was just a kid being a kid. We give these kids all this money and don't expect them to go through some changes. It doesn't work that way. He had to grow up like anyone else. He's getting better right now."

Since breaking into the NHL in 2005-06, only 14 players have collected more goals than Carter's 229. Last season he pumped in 26 in just 48 games to lead the Western Conference. Carter had a 46-goal season with the Flyers in 2008-09 and signed an 11-year contract worth $58 million. He was expected to be a Flyer for life. Same with Richards. Then boom. They were both shipped out and the whispers of bad behaviour became loud shots in the media. Carter didn't like it in Columbus, and in the end, Columbus didn't like him. Diva was an easy label to tag on him.

But since arriving in Los Angeles, he's been one of the game's most dangerous players, as Jets fans saw Friday night, when he potted his second goal of the season in the third period.

"People that gave him that reputation, they didn't know Jeff Carter. He's a talent. He was a big part of our Cup team. Scored big goals. Played two positions. Played lots of minutes. Killed penalties, played power play," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. "Last year he was the leading scorer in the Western Conference. His play speaks for itself."

Lombardi, who was in the player personnel department with the Flyers when Carter broke in, says he's seen a change in the man and the player.

"The last couple of years he's taken a huge jump. I think it's a reflection of his growth and maturity as much as a person as a player. He's one of the leaders in our room now. The last couple of years he's spent a lot of time in the summer in L.A. training. That wasn't always Jeff's MO when he was younger," said Lombardi.

Carter is the ultimate right place at the right time guy and that's no easy trick. Not only does he have the instinct and speed to put him in prime scoring areas but also possesses the hands to convert.

"He's a goal scorer. He's a shooter. In my opinion, top two or three in the league. Maybe (Alex) Ovechkin has a better shot," said Richards. "He has the knack of finding the holes. Some people will say it was a lucky bounce and it came right to you. You have to work hard to be in the right position and then you have to finish. He has the best release I've ever seen and he shoots it hard."

Richards knows Carter maybe better than anyone in hockey. They play on the same line and rely on each other night after night. The Kenora-born Richards says Carter is only now reaching the height of his powers and it's coming from a change within.

"He's put a bigger emphasis on his fitness. He came in this year and he was top-three on the team in testing. That wasn't expected from him in prior years," said Richards. "He was so naturally gifted coming into the NHL he didn't need it. He works out after every practice... He's so powerful now, and it makes him better."

A request to speak with Carter for this story was made but he wouldn't comply Friday morning prior to the game.

"He's quiet. Media-wise he's not going to come out here and open up to you. But the more you get to know him, the more he'll open up," said Richards. "And you see it here. He's become a leader. More vocal on the bench and in the room. He never complains. He just puts his head down and goes about his business."

Baggage? Certainly. But we all have that. More telling and pertinent is that Carter continues to soar.

Maybe he checked his luggage and then just left it behind for others to fuss about.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 C2

History

Updated on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 8:00 AM CDT: Fixed year of trade to 2012.

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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