IRVINE, Calif. — The Pittsburgh Penguins had just ambushed the San Jose Sharks by a 10-2 count, and the typical postgame locker room scene was unfolding Saturday night.
Except for the part where Jeff Carter, dressed in a suit and tie, was walking around the room, congratulating each player on a job well done. These were the same players whom Mike Sullivan deemed better fit to dress for the game than Carter, he of the two Stanley Cup rings, the 431 NHL goals and universal respect.
While Carter no doubt was happy to see his teammates win, it surely must have been a blow to his ego to see the Penguins score 10 goals in a breakout performance on the night he was a healthy scratch for the first time in his hockey life.
You would not, however, have believed that had you witnessed Carter in the locker room that night.
“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” Sidney Crosby said.
Crosby on Letang’s finishing ability and connecting for so many goals over the years: “Pretty good, especially for a defenseman [smiles]… We should have a little bit of chemistry after playing a few years together, I think.” pic.twitter.com/W1Ul2DrLcI
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 6, 2023
Crosby doesn’t say that about just anyone. The respect Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have for Carter is immense and very clear for everyone to see. The Big Three, I suspect, recognizes Carter as one of the great players of their era. They like having him around. There is something to be said for that.
Carter is an easy villain in Pittsburgh, and many — especially in the world of social media — are frequently enraged by the playing time he receives on a regular basis. He’s old news to this crowd. Or, maybe he’s just old.
Nonetheless, I’ll offer some gentle reminders about Carter:
• It’s not Carter’s fault that Sullivan never removed him from the lineup.
Blame Sullivan if you’d like. Have at it. Any rage you’re displaying toward Carter is utterly misplaced. He’s a professional, he’s in phenomenal condition and it’s not like he isn’t trying to play well.
• Blame Kyle Dubas if you’d like.
He runs the show. His hands are tied by Carter’s contract with a no-movement clause, but perhaps he could have tried something creative to keep him away from the Penguins. And he didn’t. So let Dubas know about it if you’d like.
• Feel free to blame Ron Hextall, too.
Hextall is the one who gave Carter a two-year deal that seemed curious at the time. Would you be willing to play hockey this season for a hair more than $3 million? So, does it make Carter a bad guy that he’s doing that very thing?
People will continue to launch their disdain in Carter’s direction and will mock him because the Penguins scored 10 goals without him in the lineup. And this is fine. Fans have the ability to say what they wish.
In the end, however, Carter is really emerging as a respectable character who is putting the Penguins first.
It was a humble Carter who agreed to meet with the media following practice Monday afternoon in California. I assure you he could have dodged us quite easily. He instead accepted the request to speak.
One could sense some embarrassment about his predicament, but there was also a genuine enthusiasm in his tone when the veteran spoke of his plight.
He even smiled sheepishly a couple of times.
“I’m not going to come in here and mope around and be an old, grumpy guy,” Carter said. “I’m going to come in here and try to keep it light in the room.”
Carter confirmed that he’s never been a healthy scratch at any point in his hockey life. At 38, it must have been awkward, especially coming in California, where he’s enjoyed so much greatness as a player.
He faced the music Monday and spoke eloquently about making the most of his situation.
“It was definitely a different feeling,” Carter said. “But I understand it. I’m part of a team. Whatever Sully decides to do with the lineup, we’re all on board.”
Make no mistake, this hasn’t been easy on Sullivan. The coach is a believer in Carter and played him in many high-leverage situations last season despite ample evidence that Carter was no longer the most effective player for such a role.
Sullivan knows what Carter has done in his career and knows what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh. He also knows what kind of leader and person Carter is.
“We have so much respect for Carts,” Sullivan said. “Look at his body of work in this league. He’s knocking on the door to the Hall of Fame with what he’s accomplished as a player.”
Coach Sullivan on the status of Ludvig and Nedeljkovic: “So, they are skating at home. They are both making progress. We are hopeful. We will see what happens when we get off the trip.” pic.twitter.com/NvTagVSz9x
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 6, 2023
Before the Penguins played in San Jose, Sullivan and Carter sat down and talked. Sullivan let Carter know the bad news.
“Those are hard conversations,” Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the job. That one in particular was real difficult for me.”
It wasn’t fun for Carter, either.
“I want to be out there,” he said. “I want to play. But I understand the situation. I’ll keep a smile on my face and keep working hard.”
The Carter era in Pittsburgh will be remembered for a number of reasons. His legacy, I suppose, is a polarizing one.
He took Pittsburgh by storm after Hextall traded for him in 2021. He scored 13 goals in his first 20 games in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t just Jeff Carter. He was Big Jeff Carter.
Then, his play declined. His playing time didn’t. Some in the fan base have been in an uproar ever since.
In Carter’s final chapter, however, it would be something if his behind-the-scenes mentorship — he was on the ice long after practice on Monday with some of the Penguins’ younger players — helped these Penguins find their way.
“I’m trying,” Carter said. “They’re (the Penguins young players) obviously focusing on what they’re doing. But if there’s things I see, I can try to help them out here and there. I’ve still got to bring something to the table here.”
He clearly cares about his teammates and the organization. Carter and his family plan on making Pittsburgh their permanent home after he retires. He was never at his best in Pittsburgh as a hockey player, but his affection for the city is quite real.
Carter was a great, great player for a long time. He no longer is. Say what you will about Carter and the playing time the Penguins have given him. Don’t call him a bad teammate, though.
In that regard, he’s as good as it gets.
“He’s a great pro,” Sullivan said.
Maybe Sullivan hasn’t always been right in the ice time he’s allotted to Carter. But in this description, he’s right on the money.
Notes: The Penguins will hold an optional morning skate Tuesday in Anaheim before their game against the Ducks … Sullivan said that defenseman John Ludvig and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic are both skating back in Pittsburgh and are “making progress.” … Look for the Penguins to use the same forward lines against the Ducks that were on display in San Jose.
(Photo: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)