The Philadelphia Flyers spent yesterday trading away some of the best centers in hockey in order to address issues with their cap, goaltending, prospect depth and overall team youth. It's unclear yet if the new Flyers will be up and running before their defensive bulwarks, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, both 36 years of age, cease to be effective at the NHL level.
In a league starved for first-grade offensive centers, this bonanza was long overdue. Both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are better centers than the current best available UFA Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars. With cap hits of $5.272 million for Carter and $5.75 million for Richards, they are both likely to prove to be more cost/cap effective additions than Richards.
Columbus and LA have managed to trade for centers who have their long-term contracts in place rather than bid for the only real UFA first-line center available this season. As Chris Drury and Scott Gomez proved back in 2007, when you are the only game in town the price sometimes gets unreasonably high.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have struggled for years at the draft table. Their one great coup has been Rick Nash their first overall pick in 2002. He has been a very good player—big, strong, fast when he gets going, a sniper.
The challenge, though, has been to unlock his full potential. Whether through the draft—Gilbert Brule, Alex Picard, Jacob Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Derick Brassard; trades—Antoine Vermette, Scottie Upshall; or free agent signings—RJ Umberger, Kristian Huselius—the Columbus Bluejackets have been unable to build an offensively talented team around Nash.
Last season three of their four centers—Vermette, Umberger and Pahlsson—were former or current checking centers. The fourth, Derek Brassard, has yet to prove himself at the NHL level.
Meanwhile, power forward and all-star left winger Rick Nash has played eight full NHL seasons waiting for a center to compliment him. Nash just turned 27 this June 16. He is not by any definition old but he is approaching what are expected to be the prime years of any NHL player's career.
The time is long past to get him a real first-line center to play with and unlock that 50-goal season potential he may have inside. The Columbus Bluejackets have finally grasped the nettle and made a deal for Philadelphia Flyers center Jeff Carter.
Carter was only 26 this January. He has played six full seasons with the Flyers, scoring a career-high 46 goals and 84 points in 2008/09. He is a big kid who is surprisingly fast and can shoot the puck.
Playing on a Flyers team that was overloaded at center, he still played 18:18 minutes a game. That was fourth most among Flyers forwards. He was third in power-play time among the forwards, tied with Mike Richards at 2:56 minutes a game.
Carter will log more time on the first line with Nash, probably nearer to the 19 minutes a game RJ Umberger got. He and Nash will lead the team in power-play ice time with much less of that time being spent on Umberger.
Carter and Nash should have better years offensively, especially in the second half when they have gotten used to each other. Those two can be expected to drag along whatever third player is lucky enough to get put on their line. A moderately talented player like Huselius or a youngster like Filatov may get a great chance to blossom as the Blue Jackets might suddenly have one of the best first lines in hockey.
Columbus has sacrificed young potential and draft picks in order to plug this organizational hole. They have been waiting much too long for things to happen in Columbus. Now they have taken a chance to make those things happen for themselves.
The Blue Jackets send Jacob Voracek their first-round pick in 2007 (7th overall) to Philadelphia. The 21-year-old right winger has played three full seasons in Columbus scoring 38, 50 and 46 points. The young Czech is a restricted free agent and will need to be signed by the Flyers.
Voracek has always been very highly regarded. The problem for him and Columbus to date is that his potential has yet to translate into NHL points. He's a quick skater and good passer. Just being a year older and playing on a new team with a few more young offensively talented players might see him develop next year. Right now he is at best only partly realized potential.
Columbus also gave up their first-round pick this year, eighth overall, to the Flyers. This was good for a Flyers team that didn't have a pick until the third round this year before the trade. Still available this year around the eighth spot may be defenseman Ryan Murphy from the Kitchener Rangers, center Mika Zibanejad from the Swedish Elite League or even falling star Sean Couturier, center from Drummondville.
The Flyers also picked up the Columbus third-round draft pick. The Flyers have gotten weaker down center in order to allow themselves the cap room they needed to sign a real starting goalie. They will be hoping the draft picks and prospects will help the team keep competitive for years to come. Right now, however, a move from Jeff Carter to Jacob Voracek represents a huge drop in talent.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have added that first-line center that they haven't been able to find in their first 11 years of existence. Look for Nash and Carter to improve offensively next year. Expect the Blue Jackets power play, which had a horrible 14 percent success rate (29th overall), to improve greatly. Most teams will have trouble dealing with the burly Carter and Nash when they start working together down low.
In the end I'd expect the Blue Jackets as a team to score more goals than the 215 (eighth worst overall) they managed last year.
The Blue Jackets still need to get top-quality goaltending from Steve Mason next year. They need the defense to tighten up to improve in the standings. The addition of Jeff Carter, however, ensures Columbus will be a more exciting offensive team than they have managed to be at any time in their short history.