Puck drop of the 2021-22 NHL season is here and many teams across the league are preparing for their first 82-game season since 2019. The league will finally see some normalcy again, but the Pittsburgh Penguins will get off to an abnormal start.
The beginning of the Penguins’ season will look strange due to the injuries and recoveries of key stars. Evgeni Malkin is expected to miss a chunk of the season to recover from knee surgery. Sidney Crosby, while quickly returning to form, will still miss the start of the season after an offseason wrist surgery. Jake Guentzel will be out for some time due to COVID protocol.
Those are three names the team can’t play long without, but there may be an unexpected saving grace to keep the team afloat during that time. Veteran center Jeff Carter will be starting the season as Pittsburgh’s first-line center.
For Carter, this season will be more than just having a heavier workload to help his team win. It could very well be his last in the NHL and he has a lot to play for. For Pens fans, and hockey fans in general, watching Carter play in 2021-22 will be can’t miss hockey.
Final Year in NHL
When a hockey player is aware the end is closing in, they want to go out in style. For Carter, the situation is no different and it took some help from a former boss to bring him where he is today.
When the Los Angeles Kings began looking to trade Carter, the rumors began that he would rather retire than play for another team. And that’s fair, for a 36-year-old with a family, moving more than just teams isn’t easy. But the stars aligned for him and the Penguins.
The Kings, in the midst of a re-build, knew Carter wasn’t a part of the future. Penguins new general manager Ron Hextall had worked with Carter in Los Angeles and with the Philadelphia Flyers in the early portion of Carter’s career. There was a previous relationship there, and they won a pair of championships together in LA. With a pile of injuries, the Penguins needed a depth center, and Carter fit perfectly.
Even before the trade, it was rumored Carter was going to retire after the 2020-21 NHL season. Upon arrival in Pittsburgh, the soon to be fan favorite let everyone know he would play out the rest of his contract.
Elevated Role With Penguins
When the Penguins acquired Carter, the goal was to have him play in the middle six center roles while the team recovered from a truck load of injuries. Now, as they head into the 2021-22 season, the injuries continue to linger. Like stated before, both Crosby and Malkin are expected to miss the start of the year, pushing Carter into the first line center spot.
Carter playing first-line center is not something he’s done much of over his long career. With both the Flyers and Kings, he would normally slot in as the second to third-line center. Playing behind Daniel Brier, Anze Kopitar, or even Mike Richards, it is finally Carter’s turn.
Taking the role of the first-line center isn’t something that will last long for Carter, since Crosby seems to be rapidly recovering. Even the second-line center isn’t exactly where the Penguins wanted him to play when he was acquired, but with Malkin expected to be out for at least two months of the season, Carter will be in that elevated role.
Luckily for the Penguins, Carter has been one of the team’s most electric goal scorers since arriving. Last season, he posted nine goals in 14 regular-season games with the Penguins, including a four-goal performance against the Buffalo Sabres. That scoring ability translated into the postseason as well, with four tallies in six games. It’s that kind of prowess that has turned the veteran center into a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
Next Stop: Hall of Fame?
It’s a stretch, but the argument could be made that Carter is a fringe Hall of Fame player. A former first-round pick in 2003, he’s played in over 1,000 NHL games and has always been an extremely skilled player. A noted goal scorer, he sits one away from 400 in his career and 38 points shy of 800.
His personal numbers are pretty good, but his team successes also add to Carter’s legacy. He has won two Stanley Cups with Hextall and the Kings, and a gold medal with Crosby in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
During the Cup runs in LA, Carter was one of the Kings’ most prominent players. In 2012, he scored an NHL leading eight goals with five assists for 13 points in 20 games. He tacked on three game-winners that year, too. But in 2014, he made even more noise. In 26 games he scored 10 goals, 15 assists and 25 points.
For a career, Carter has played in 127 playoff games and pulled in 43 goals and 36 assists for 79 points. He’s a clutch scorer, as well, picking up seven game-winning-goals along the way.
Even on an international stage, Carter finds a way to shine. Most notably during the 2014 Olympics, he helped Team Canada take home gold with three goals and two assists for five points in six games. Take a jump in the time machine to the 2005 World Junior Championships and you’ll see some more impressive numbers. Another gold medal for Team Canada, Carter himself scored 10 points in six games.
The induction of Carter into the Hockey Hall of Fame may not be on the minds of voters at the moment. But if he is able to close out a career while making a big statement, his odds will increase.
To be fair, hockey players are a different breed of human, and Carter may decide to not call it quits. Regardless, the curtain is slowly closing on what is at the minimum a memorable career. And no matter how much gas is left in the tank, the veteran center has a lot to play for. A top-line spot has been thrust upon him and he will be striving to go out on top. A standout final performance could land him in some hallowed halls.
After three straight first-round postseason exits, the Penguins will be looking for something more. A fire should be lit under the team and Carter will be a huge piece to their success.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.