First domino falls as Kings land Carter

When he returned to the lineup on Feb. 3 after missing 10 games because of a separated shoulder, Jeff Carter spoke of the challenge of finding consistency in an injury-plagued start to his Columbus Blue Jackets career after signing an 11-year, $58-million extension with Philadelphia less than a year before the Flyers dealt him to Columbus on June 23.

“It has been a tough one,” Carter said. “I’ve been in and out, and in and out, and it’s tough to get into a routine and into a groove, especially coming to a new team. I’m just happy to be back now.”

Carter scored in a 3-2 overtime win at Anaheim that night and added another three goals as part of a first-star performance in a 6-3 win over San Jose on Tuesday. And now he’s headed to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round draft pick.

Carter, 27, a three-time 30-goal scorer who was selected 11th overall by Philadelphia in 2003, joins Los Angeles with 15 goals and 25 points over 39 games in 2011-12. Johnson, who signed a seven-year, $30.5-million extension with the Kings in January 2011, has eight goals and 24 points in 61 games. He heads to Columbus as a minus-12 this season and career minus-90 to join a team in stark need of defensive reinforcement.

Carter becomes the first major domino to fall as rumors swirl around Columbus forward Rick Nash and Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk as a precursor to the collection of smaller deals signed off on right up until the 3 p.m. EST trading deadline on Monday. Goaltenders such as Los Angeles’ Jonathan Bernier and Vancouver’s Cory Schneider are also likely to hear their names mentioned over the phone by league executives this weekend.

As a stand-alone trade this isn’t the missing piece that should drastically transform the Kings’ moribund offense into a productive, consistent unit. Though general manager Dean Lombardi said that “right now I have absolutely nothing” in reference to future deals during a conference call Thursday, there will no doubt be a concerted effort to add offense to a unit that ranks dead last in the NHL with 2.05 goals per game. Pointing to the team’s lack of secondary scoring, injuries to Scott Parse and Simon Gagne, and Dustin Penner’s general ineffectiveness, Lombardi alleged that a heavy strain was put on the team’s top-end scoring to produce. Trade talks rounded into form over the last week, and the deal was announced one day after the Kings returned home from a two-game trip to Phoenix and Colorado in which they earned one point.

“It has kind of snowballed on us,” Lombardi said of the team’s offensive struggles. “It’s almost psychological now.”

Lay off of plans of stringing a Happy Times Are Here Again banner across Figueroa Street. Lombardi acknowledged that much more is still needed from players already on the Kings roster.

“This is something you want to add, but you should have a better base,” Lombardi said. “Jeff Carter is not going to come in and be the cavalry. We’ve got a lot of guys who still have to perform at a higher level, grow into becoming winners, and get some other players who have been there back to their identity and doing what they do well.”

Noting that “the only way that we can make this deal is because we have some young defensemen coming through the system,” Lombardi will call up rookie defenseman Slava Voynov, who was sent down to Manchester out of numbers, if not in crime. With four goals and 11 points in 33 games with the big club this season, Voynov has rarely looked out of place and should at the very least be able to provide minutes on par with Johnson’s as the logjam that has kept former fourth-overall pick Thomas Hickey in the American Hockey League for three years has been loosened.

It also means that Carter is reunited with former Flyers pal Mike Richards. The two endured a minor public relations assault last summer when a report surfaced that nightlife habits may have played a role in their trades from Philadelphia. While the two weren’t often linemates, at the very least there should be some on-ice chemistry between two Ontarians who happen to be close friends. Perhaps it will provide the prescription for Richards — he has no goals and five assists in 16 games.

Only 39 games into his tenure with a team that began with an at-home plea from Columbus general manager Scott Howson, then-coach Scott Arniel and star center Rick Nash, Carter’s legacy won’t be remembered particularly fondly at Nationwide Arena, where Los Angeles will visit March 8.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Howson downplayed cutting the team’s losses with Carter while highlighting what he believes to be a young, developing blue line.

“We were not just going to make a deal just to try and get rid of a player,” Howson said. “It had to be the right return.”

“We’ve added a quality, top-four defenseman. I think we now have a very good defense if you go with Tyutin and Nikitin and Wisniewski and Johnson and Methot and Moore and Savard and Clitsome. I think we’re shaping up to have a nice defense.”

While that might be a bit of a stretch, there will likely be less of a restraint on Johnson to fit in to smothering defensive systems, loosening the reins on a thoroughbred capable of putting up strong offensive numbers and improving a power play. Still, considering he was a minus-33 over his last two seasons with defense-first Los Angeles, he’ll have to show improvement in all areas of his game if he wants to avoid a perfect storm of plus-minus deficiency.

Much like Drew Henson, a former Yankees farmhand and Dallas Cowboys quarterback who played for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Johnson becomes another high-profile former Michigan Wolverine playing in a city where any false step that suggests the slightest crack in the armor becomes ammunition for a polarized, scarlet-and-grey sports landscape. While that may seem purely anecdotal, Jack Johnson to Columbus, Ohio just doesn’t seem like a good fit in our eyes.

No, this trade seems more likely to favor the Los Angeles Kings in the short term, even if they’ve been backed into this position by a young but underachieving roster that hasn’t taken the step forward many expected of them this season. As a stand-alone, this isn’t a trade that will do much to raise the Kings much higher than seventh or eighth in the West. But with secondary moves to acquire more offensive depth, Lombardi will be more likely to emerge as the victor in a trade between two GMs backed up against the ropes.

In the long term — such as when Carter dings Los Angeles for a $5.2-million cap hit in 2022, should he even be anywhere near Staples Center at that point — this trade gets a little murkier.

Also cloudy is Rick Nash’s future in Columbus, though courtesy of the current move and Los Angeles’ lack of cap maneuverability, the Kings are off the table as a potential trade target.

“We’re more than satisfied with Jeff,” Lombardi said. “That’s probably more of a question for Scottie [Howson], quite honestly, than me. Once we saw that Jeff was available, for a price, don’t get me wrong, we were more than comfortable going this route, for a number of reasons.”