Matt Carle: A Remembrance

A look at the Lightning career of the oft-maligned blueliner

Matt Carle retired on Friday.  After 12 seasons, 730 NHL games, 4 teams and 0 Stanley Cups, the Alaska native had decided to hang up the skates for good.  His last game was with Nashville, a 6-1 beating at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in which he was on the ice for 14 minutes in which he recorded not a point, penalty or shot. With his retirement, the chapter was closed on one of the few misfires of Steve Yzerman’s otherwise stellar record as general manager.

Carle actually had two tours with the Lightning, first as the key piece acquired in one of the the ugliest breakups/trades in franchise history (Owners Fault Category), than as a seasoned free agent veteran who was looked at as bringing stability to a young organization.  Both times the organization put a lot of trust into him, and both times he failed to reward that trust.

His First Stint With the Lightning

The 2008-09 Tampa Bay Lightning were a newsworthy team. Unfortunately the news wasn’t always good.  Yes, they had Steven Stamkos the number one overall draft pick. They also had new forwards Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Radim Vrbata and a not so new Vinny Prospal who was back for yet  another go around with the team. They also had Barry Melrose behind the net and a couple of new owners who shall not be named.

Other than drafting Stamkos the other highlight of that summer was the bitter, bitter departure of Dan Boyle. How bitter? Let’s see what Boyle had to say about how it went down, “I understand business is business,” the St. Petersburg Times quoted him in a July 5th, 2008 article, “and I would not have taken it personally if it was done the right way. But when threats are involved and my personal character and work ethic questioned, that’s not the way to do business”.*

Enter Matt Carle, expected to step in and fill the skates left behind by Boyle (almost literally as he occupied the same stall Boyle did, you know, the one where his skates fell and severed tendons in his wrist).  Carle, a Hobey Baker winner and All-Rookie, came to Tampa along with Ty Wishart in exchange for Boyle and Brad Lukowich.  The former University of Denver Pioneer was expected to help offset the offensive void left by Boyle’s departure, after all the Alaska native had put up 42 points in 77 games as a 22-year-old during his first full season with the Sharks.

Lightning management chose to ignore his rough sophomore season that saw him drop to 15 points and only 62 games played. They were betting on a change of scenery (he did admit to having not seen eye-to-eye with Sharks coach Ron Wilson) would bring a return to his rookie scoring ways.  After all, he was only 24 and had only about 150 games under his belt as a pro, there was plenty of room for growth.  With a four-year contract he should have been a fixture on the Lightning blue line for many, many years.

He lasted 12 games.

Which is sad when you consider even Barry Melrose lasted 16 games that season.

On November 7th Carle was dealt with a 3rd round pick to the Flyers for Steve Eminger, Steve Downie and a 4th round pick.  Oh, and about $2.2 million in cap savings.  Which was kind of ironic since Matt Carle became a member of the Lightning because of cap issues.

General Manager Brian Lawton tried to sell Eminger as a similar player to Carle (but better defensively), just at a lower cost. The right-handed shot defender would last 50 games with the Lightning before being dealt to Florida for Noah Welch and a draft pick.  Steve Downie would spend a solid years with Tampa Bay before moving on to Colorado in a February 2012 trade.

Carle would spend four seasons in Philly scoring 15 goals and adding 122 assists (most of them alongside Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger). After the 2011-12 season he would become an unrestricted free agent. Would Carle have put up those number in a Lightning uniform?  Probably not, but judging a 24-year-old a bust after 12 games was at best short-sided, at worst a panic move.

Return to the Lightning

Heading into the 2012-13 season Matt Carle was one of the top defensive free agents on the market and the Lightning needed help on defense. The defense that took the ice in the last game of the previous season consisted of Eric Brewer (still serviceable if declining), Victor Hedman (so young, but yet to become the beast we know now), Keith Aulie (he was tall), Brett Clark (Braydon Coburn before Braydon Coburn), Mike Commodore (#packyoursh*t), Brian Lee (had potential), and Brendan Mikkelson (had potential). It was in need of an overhaul and General Manager Steve Yzerman decided to do it through free agency.

First he signed veteran Sami Salo to a two-year deal.  Then he snagged Matt Carle on a six-year $33 million contract.  In doing so, Mr. Yzerman not only helped his new team out, but dealt a blow to his old team. Six years seemed to a bit steep, but Carle was only 27 at the time so it wasn’t inconceivable that he could be productive throughout most of it (and it looked like a bargain compared to the 13-year deal Ryan Suter, who was also 27, signed the same season).

Mr. Yzerman told the St. Petersburg times in a 2012 article, “He’s a top four defenseman that plays in all situations. He moves the puck well. He skates well.”*

The first two seasons of the deal looked good as he put up 22 points in 48 games in 2012-13 and then 31 points in 82 games in 2013-14 while logging more than 22 minutes a game.  Not great, but acceptable.  Especially on a team that was still developing its defense. He actually led Lightning defensemen in points in 2012-13 and finished second to Hedman in 2013-14 so he was contributing. As Hedman developed you could see Carle sliding into the second pairing role and rounding out a decent top four for the club.

Then the wheels kind of fell off. Maybe it was the introduction of Anton Stralman and a diminishing role for Carle or the fact that he turned 30, but he just seemed to disappear on the ice.  Never a physical player (he failed to reach 50 hits in a season in a Lightning uniform),his main contribution had to be offense. As his point production lightened, his albatross of a contract became heavier and heavier.

His mistakes became more noticeable.  Even when he didn’t make a mistake blame was shifted onto his shoulders.  Case in point, the “own” goal against Chicago.

Could Carle have flipped a backhand pass to an open Stamkos at center ice?  Sure, but it also looks like Stamkos was going off on a line change.  Carle tried to make the safe play by sending the puck back to Radko Gudas. It took a bad hop off his stick and past Ben Bishop who was apparently thinking about ordering some Old Style and a deep dish pizza.

That seemed to be the story with Carle during the last couple of years. He didn’t always make downright horrible decisions, but when he did they ended up in the net.  His best games ended up being the ones where you didn’t notice he was on the ice. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a player accounting for $5.5 million in cap space.

By last season it was evident that the team was running out of faith in him. He did appear in 64 games, but the was more due to the fact that Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr and Anton Stralman all missed time because of injury, not because of Carle’s abilities. He had become the whipping boy for the fans (including at least one smart ass blogger who included a “Did Matt Carle Score a Point” feature in his recaps).

Stralman’s injury at the end of the season did thrust Carle into the line-up at the start of the playoffs.  He would play adequately for the first few rounds and even chip in a bit offensively (his 5 assists trailed only Hedman and Garrison among defenders in the postseason for the Lightning).  However, he was exposed by the speed of the Penguins and lost his spot in the lineup to Slater Koekkoek.

With the salary cap crunch looming in the offseason it was only a matter of time until he was traded or bought out.  With the emergence of Koekkoek and the re-signing of Nikita Nesterov there wasn’t a spot on the roster for an offensive-minded blueliner who couldn’t score. If he was only making about $2.5 million a year he might have stuck around. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room in the budget for an 8th defensemen who didn’t score or drive possession. He was bought out in June, ending his tenure with the Lightning.

Throughout it all he remained a true professional.  Never once did he complain to the media about his lack of playing time or how he was used by the team.  He took his healthy scratches in silence and then tried his hardest when he did get a chance. For two seasons he was pretty much what the Lightning had hoped for (and propelled him to 7th all-time in points for a Lightning blueliner).

It would have been nice for it to end better for Matt Carle.  A team bleeding goals (like Toronto) should have a spot for a player with his experience. Carle probably could have stuck it out, signed an AHL deal and kept the dream alive for a few more days, but he saw the writing on the wall and decided to end it now.

What was his legacy with the Lightning?  Probably that of a bridge player that was overpaid to come solidify a shaky defense and whose value quickly diminished once the team was able to secure better talent around him. His jersey will never hang from the rafters, but as time goes on, he will probably be fondly remembered.

Speaking of fond remembrances, how about a video of a yooooouuung Matt Carle showing off some offense?

*CRISTODERO, DAMIAN. "BOYLE DEALT TO SHARKS." St.Petersburg TimesJul 05 2008. ProQuest. Web. 27 Nov. 2016 .

*CRISTODERO, DAMIAN. "FOUR YEARS TO THE DAY .." Tampa Bay TimesJul 05 2012. ProQuest. Web. 27 Nov. 2016 .