Kings bet on Carter to fulfill team's promise

It is safe to say that Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi is now officially "all in."

He meticulously built the nucleus of a team that should be ready to challenge the perennial big boys of the Western Conference.

He fired his head coach when that group began shooting blanks offensively and slid down the standings.

He lured his old friend Darryl Sutter, who hadn’t coached since the end of the 2006 season, away from the family farm in Alberta to bring some order to a team that seemed to lack, well, something.

And on Thursday night, Lombardi traded away a top, young puck-moving defenseman in Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round draft pick for a disgruntled, oft-injured forward in Jeff Carter. Lombardi is now counting on Carter to rediscover his golden scoring touch and lead the Kings not just into the postseason but deep into the playoffs.

Whatever else Lombardi does or doesn’t do before Monday’s 3 p.m. EST trade deadline -- whether he trades back-up netminder Jonathan Bernier or even captain Dustin Brown, as rumors suggested he was contemplating Thursday night -- the Carter deal is Lombardi’s line in the stand.

From this point forward, it will be remembered as the deal that led to a renaissance for the Kings and a realization of the good times that have been hinted at but not delivered for the past three or four years. Or it will be Lombardi’s Waterloo, the signaling of what many hockey observers predict will be a dramatic overhaul of a Kings team that has failed to achieve simpatico in spite of so much talent and promise.

We recall sitting in Lombardi’s office at the Kings’ practice facility near Los Angeles International Airport in December. The team was struggling offensively and he was within days of firing Terry Murray as head coach and replacing him with Sutter.

Lombardi talked about the need to assess his locker room before he made any moves, the need to make sure that there was enough there to warrant making significant roster moves.

On Thursday, he put the onus on those remaining players to prove they were worth it, giving them what should be the tools needed to salvage this season -- emphasis on "should."

There is more than a little skepticism in the hockey world that this is the move that saves the Kings and, by extension, Lombardi’s job and likely Sutter’s job as well.

Carter is a proven NHL scorer, having once scored 46 goals in a season. Two other times he topped the 30-goal mark. But his durability has been an issue, as has his attitude and his ability to elevate his game when it matters.

Numerous sources around the NHL expressed disappointment with Carter’s response to being traded last June from Philadelphia to Columbus after signing an 11-year deal with the Flyers. The 27-year-old wasn’t happy with the deal and never seemed to embrace his new hockey home. Beset by injuries, he produced 15 goals in 39 games, three of those coming in a win over San Jose this week.

The fact that Columbus GM Scott Howson moved so quickly to jettison what looked last summer to be such a key component of the Blue Jackets’ long-term future speaks volumes about how unpleasant things were on so many fronts in Columbus this season.

Joining his third team in eight months, Carter is going to have to face questions about his maturity as he is reunited with former Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards, another victim of the Flyers’ offseason purge.

Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren has his own worries what with the shaky psyche of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov who was signed to a nine-year deal after the Flyers cleared cap room in part by dealing Carter and Richards. But the bottom line for Holmgren was that he clearly felt he could not win long-term with Carter and Richards in the room.

In short, he believed those two top-six forwards, one his captain, were expendable.

Before trading Carter and Richards, the Flyers GM was candid at times about whether his team was prepared for games and the stories about the party boys from Philly were legion. Fair or not, Richards and Carter were inexorably tied to that perception of the team and then they were gone.

Richards has struggled this season, too, with just 14 goals in 53 games.

They were both part of a Flyers team that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, although it was Richards who played a much more significant role in that memorable spring, so both have an understanding of what goes into a long run.

Maybe Richards and Carter can find some sort of mojo and those stories of sowing their wild oats will become a footnote to something greater both personally and for the Los Angeles Kings.

If they can’t generate that chemistry and help pull the slumping Kings into the playoffs and further, then it won’t be just their reputations that will take a beating when the dust clears in Los Angeles.