There was a time when Matt Carle was the kind of defenceman who could command a big, multiyear contract in free agency. This summer, though, the 31-year-old was perhaps fortunate to get a cheap, one-year contract from the Nashville Predators.
It’s a deal that could be a much-needed life preserver for his NHL career. Alternately, it could be his final contract at hockey’s highest level.
The path that Carle took to reach this point in his career is instructive, both from the perspective of what he might do for the Predators and also because his development, emergence and decline are not unique to him.
Carle was originally selected in the second round by the San Jose Sharks in 2003, a year famous as one of the richest drafts in NHL history. He would spend the next three seasons with the University of Denver. When he finally turned pro at the end of the 2005-06 season, he was overripe, having dominated college hockey to such a degree that the NCAA gave him the Hobey Baker Award as the best player at that level.
Carle rewarded San Jose as a player capable of making an impact immediately. He scored 11 goals and 42 points as a rookie, numbers that still stand out as career highs. His scoring and ice time fell off the next season, and that summer the Sharks traded him to the Tampa Bay Lighting as part of a deal that landed brilliant offensive defenceman Dan Boyle.
Carle didn’t stay long in Tampa Bay; the Bolts flipped him just months later to the Philadelphia Flyers for a package of players centered on talented but undisciplined winger Steve Downie.
For the rest of that year, and the three that followed, Carle would be an excellent player for the Flyers. He averaged more than 21 minutes per game every year and scored 35-plus points in all three full seasons he played in Philly. He averaged just under 26 minutes per game in Philadelphia’s 2010 playoff run and recorded 13 points over 23 playoff contests that year.
Carle certainly was a beneficiary of playing with Chris Pronger, but it’s worth noting two things. The first is that Pronger’s own numbers improved when he was out with Carle rather than other partners, and the second is that Carle himself fared well in tough minutes with players such as Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Marc-Andre Bourdon.
When Carle hit free agency in the summer of 2012, he was highly sought after, and why not? He was 27 years old (about to turn 28) and a true two-way defenceman, capable of both putting up points and shutting down good opponents in tough situations. So the Lightning brought him back, signing their one-time defenceman to a six-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million.
The decline started almost immediately. Carle averaged 23:45 per game that first year with the Lightning and narrowly underperformed the team average in terms of shot metrics. The next year, the Lightning improved but Carle was worse; his offence had started to slide, and the opposition was badly outshooting Tampa Bay when he was on the ice.
In his third year with the team, the Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Carle averaged just 16:30 per game during that run, falling to fifth on the team’s postseason defensive depth chart. In the fourth year, with the shot metrics taking a brutal turn, Tampa Bay bought him out of the remainder of that six-year contract.
That takes us to the present. Had Carle retired this summer, he’d have enjoyed an impressive NHL career, spanning more than a decade and a combined 851 regular-season and playoff games. Now, though, he has a chance to prolong that career under the same coach who used him so effectively in Philadelphia.
Carle told Brooks Bratten of the Predators’ official website that the chance to play for Nashville coach Peter Laviolette was an important factor in accepting the Preds’ contract offer.
“There’s a lot of familiarity there; he knows my game and I know what to expect from him as a coach,” Carle said. “He and I had a really good conversation before I made the decision to come there, and that made the decision much easier for me, knowing what my role would be and knowing what to expect going forward.”
It’s far too much to expect that Carle will revert to being the player he was under Laviolette a half-decade ago. In fact, the smart money is likely on a continuation of the trend that's developed the last few years, the years that saw Carle deteriorate from first-pairing defenceman to buyout candidate.
However, that’s not necessarily the way the story goes from here. Carle’s certainly on the back nine of his career, but he isn’t ancient; he’ll turn 32 in September. We’ve seen players rebound and extend their careers at that juncture. One good recent example is Nick Schultz, who turned a one-year lifeline with the Flyers into a multiyear extension at exactly that age.
Carle will play a defined role on a strong team under a coach who knows and values him. It’s hard to imagine a much better situation for him to prove he still has what it takes to play in the NHL.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.