Ron Hextall’s first major move as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins was to trade for Jeff Carter. At the time it seemed like a solid gamble given the low cost in terms of assets (just a couple of mid-round picks) and how little it was actually going to cost the Penguins against the salary cap (the Los Angeles Kings retained half of his remaining contract).
It has worked out far better than anybody could have expected. On Wednesday, the Penguins rewarded Carter with a two-year contract extension that kicks in next season and will pay him an average annual salary (and salary cap hit) of $3.125 million per season.
It is fairly significant move for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that Carter has been a wonderful addition to the Penguins lineup. As of Wednesday he has appeared in 56 games as a member of the Penguins (including the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago) and already scored 25 goals during that time. That comes out to a 37-goal pace per 82 games, which is the level the 37-year-old Carter scored goals at during his prime years in the NHL.
His addition has helped balance out the Penguins’ lineup and give them the ability to roll out four lines that can score, and when healthy gives them a center quartet of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Carter, and Teddy Blueger that is as good as any other team in the league. Since Carter’s arrival the Penguins’ scoring depth has been incredible and given them one of the deepest scoring lineups in the league. They had been trying to solve the third-line center spot since Nick Bonino exited in free agency following the 2016-17 season, going through several different players (and burning several assets in the process) always to keep ending up back at the drawing board. The Penguins were so happy with Carter that he was one of the seven forwards they protected in the expansion draft this past offseason.
So far this season he has played a key role at center, spending most of the first half of the season centering the second line while the team waited for Malkin to make his debut. He has 12 goals and 14 assists (26 total points).
The other important factor here is this does seem to send a message as to the immediate focus of the team in the next few seasons. The fact they are re-signing a 37-year-old center to a two-year contract might be some indication that they are not looking to rebuild anytime soon, and that they still see a Stanley Cup opportunity here with this core. There has been an expectation for a couple of years now that the Penguins might start re-tooling for the future at some point (that talk reached its highest point prior to this season) but they keep winning and looking like contenders. They currently have one of the best records in the NHL.
With Carter now signed that is one less potential unrestricted free agent they have to worry about this offseason. They have several other players who are eligible, including some major core players. Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Evan Rodrigues, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, Brian Boyle, Casey DeSmith, and Chad Ruhwedel are all eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, while Kasperi Kapanen, Danton Heinen, and Mark Friedman will be restricted free agents. They have around $30 million in salary cap space to work with while having just 12 players under contract for next season. It is going to take some work, but they always seem to find a way.