The first major transaction of the 2012 NHL trade deadline was conducted Thursday, and in terms of improving a team, it appears to be a lopsided victory for the Los Angeles Kings.
Desperate for goal scoring, the Kings acquired Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets and in the process shed a defenseman, Jack Johnson, who was a sizable liability in his own zone. As a result, Los Angeles should see a noticeably positive swing in its performance down the stretch.
Leaving aside Carter's character issues, for those who know the former Flyer (traded twice in a year) a little better, the center is a very impressive player. Even in a season when he's been slowed by a broken foot and a separated shoulder, he is still scoring at nearly the same level he has throughout his career: 15 goals over 39 games translates to a 32-goal pace over a full season. He's also been improved of late; since coming back from injury at the start of February, Carter has five goals and eight points in nine games, and has fired four or more shots in six of those contests.
At just 27 years old, Carter isn't even close to being past his prime, and while the length of his contract is a negative (stretching to the 2021-22 season, when he will be 37), the annual cap hit is a very reasonable $5.27 million. He'll also be a big help to the Los Angeles power play -- despite missing 21 games, Carter has more power-play points than two of the Kings' three most-used forwards.
This contrasts rather favorably with what the Kings sent the other direction. While the conditional first-round pick has value, Johnson is clearly the centerpiece of the return package.
The third overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft has always been a physically gifted player, blessed with a high degree of mobility, an arsenal of offensive weaponry and a frame and attitude that lend themselves to aggressive, physical play. Just 25 years old, Johnson soared to new scoring heights last season, recording 42 points in a campaign that saw him rewarded with a seven-year pact at an annual cap hit just under $4.4 million. Free from the long shadow of Drew Doughty, some reason that Johnson could do still more.
Yet there are troubling trends in Johnson's game at both ends of the rink.
Defensively, Johnson has never been asked to carry a particularly heavy load for the Kings. The task of taking on the toughest checking assignments falls to Doughty or Willie Mitchell or Rob Scuderi. Johnson ranks fourth on the Kings behind those players, according to the Quality of Competition metric at the statistical website Behind the Net. This current campaign marks the third consecutive season in which Johnson has been the Kings' fourth-ranked defenseman by that metric. That's not something that should come as a surprise either, given the limited use of Johnson on the penalty kill.
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.
Perhaps more damning is the fact that Johnson's vaunted offensive game is also overrated.
In January 2011, it seemed Johnson was in the middle of his breakout season: With 30 points (nine at even strength, 21 on the power play) in 41 games, he was one of the NHL's most potent blueliners. The Kings decided to lock him up long-term, signing him to the seven-year contract extension mentioned earlier. At the time, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi was confident that Johnson's offensive success was just the beginning, saying, "[You] have to make a reasonable assumption that this player is going to continue to progress … In Jack's case, I don't have any doubt that he's not going to get complacent on us."
Complacent or not, Johnson's numbers have stagnated since the extension. He scored 21 power-play points in the first 41 games of 2010-11; he's scored just 21 power-play points in the 102 games since. He scored a total of 30 points in the 41-game stretch; he's picked up a total of 35 points in the 102 games since.
Johnson is also exceedingly unlikely to return to his former level of power-play production. When the contract was signed, he was on pace for 42 power-play points -- a total that no defenseman has hit in the last three seasons, and that no defenseman is on pace to hit this season. In fact, over the last two years, just one player at any position -- Daniel Sedin in 2010-11 -- has picked up that many power-play points. It was a soap bubble that has unsurprisingly collapsed.
Carter's value, combined with Johnson's negatives, make this a puzzling trade for the Blue Jackets. They invested heavily over the summer to bring Carter over from Philadelphia, sending away promising Jakub Voracek, an eighth overall pick (Sean Couturier) and a third-round pick (Nick Cousins). In Carter, at least they had a legitimate first-line center, a piece they needed and no longer have; Johnson's not much younger and is a far lesser player.
For the Kings, this is a clear victory, and perhaps a chance to force themselves into the playoffs. Johnson's role on the team is likely to be taken by Slava Voynov, who has played 33 games with the Kings this season and has posted better scoring rates in both 5-on-5 and 5-on-4 play than Johnson, as well as a plus-4 rating. Carter's 15 goals immediately rank him as the Kings' second-leading goal scorer, despite the fact that he's missed 21 games with injury.
GVT values reflect the upgrades. Using Carter's average performance over the past three seasons, as well as the difference between Johnson and Voynov this season, we would expect to see a full-season improvement of 19 goals. Over the 21 games remaining, that translates to an extra five goals for the Kings between now and April. With Los Angeles in a three-way tie for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, that extra boost could make all the difference.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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