This strikes me as an incredibly one-sided deal; Columbus reminds me of the new guy in your fantasy league who everyone knows they can take advantage of. And yet I was shocked yesterday to read that a sizable fraction of Kings fans hate the deal, so I wanted to walk through the statistical analyst's perspective on how lopsided this trade is.
Even the casual fan knows that Carter is a good scorer. Over the last four years, he averaged 36 goals per season; only Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla, and Dany Heatley had more. While this year has been perceived as a down year for him, his 15 goals in 39 games played make it fair to say that only injury kept him from hitting 30 goals again. There's no question that Carter can produce at the offensive end.
What is much less widely known is how successful a two-way player Carter is. His defensive game is not as easy to appreciate because he does not lay the big hits that the casual fan notices and identifies with defense, but he is excellent at a subtle positioning game that is just as effective.
Those skills have resulted in Carter's coaches trusting him with tough defensive assignments. A tough defensive assignment means two things: starting in your own end and facing top competition. Since 2007-08, behindthenet.ca has tracked statistics that help us assess those aspects of usage.
Entering this year, among forwards with at least 60 games played Carter was in the 88th percentile for defensive zone starts, and he was also in the 88th percentile for quality of competition faced (by a metric called Corsi Rel QoC). Only 14 forwards were seeing usage that was tougher in both aspects, a list that includes Selke finalists like Jordan Staal and Mike Richards and defensive specialists like John Madden and Dave Bolland.
Carter is clearly trusted with premium defensive assignments, which is important on its own, as it allowed players like Danny Briere and Ville Leino to get the most from their one-way offensive skills. But we still want to know whether he succeeded in that role; we already know he scored a lot of goals, but did his defense help his team carry the play?
Over this time period, Carter's team outscored the opposition by 0.66 goals per 60 minutes when he was on the ice, and it wasn't just because he played on good teams -- they got slightly outscored when he was off the ice.
The analytical community tends to focus more on shot differential than goal differential both because it removes the effects of goaltending and because having a lot of shots per game means that random fluctuations even out much faster than when we look at a couple of goals per game. And even there, in a shot differential metric called Corsi, we see that his teams have been much better with him on the ice (50% of the shot attempts) than off it (47.9% of the shot attempts).
Carter has taken on premium competition in his own end, pushed the play forwards, and scored. At 27, he is still in his prime; it is certainly of some concern that his contract carries well past his prime, but over the next few years his $5.27M cap hit should actually be a bargain. Carter is a top-level talent who was arguably the Flyers MVP last year and compares well with the NHL's elite two-way forwards.
There is no question that Johnson has potential. An imposing player who was selected third overall, he has all the physical tools. What he doesn't have are results; he is 25 years old and has yet to be even moderately successful at the NHL level.
In 2007-08, Johnson had his first full NHL season. The Kings had high hopes for him and used him in the toughest situations, against top competition in his own end. Unfortunately, he got clobbered: the team got 40.9% of the shot attempts with him on the ice, versus 49.9% with him off it, giving him by far the worst Corsi of any Kings defenseman.
In 2008-09, the team lightened his workload, moving him down to second line competition and starting him in the offensive zone more often than not. And yet for the second straight year, he had the worst Corsi on the team. Moreover, opponents scored more goals with him on the ice (3.34 per 60 minutes) than against any other Kings defenseman. Even against middling competition, Johnson was getting creamed.
In 2009-10, his usage got as soft as possible -- he faced third line competition and started in the offensive zone as often as anyone. And for the third straight year, he had the worst Corsi on the team; for the second straight year the opponents scored more goals with him on the ice than any other defenseman.
Since then, he has moved back up to second line competition and roughly balanced zone starts, but he continues to get dominated. This year is his fifth straight year having the worst Corsi on the team and his fourth straight year having the worst goals against rate. Entering this season, Johnson's career goals against rate ranked 227th out of 228 NHL defensemen with 60+ games played. His career relative Corsi (the improvement in his team's shot differential when he is on the ice) ranked 222nd out of 228, behind only Wade Belak, Jason Strudwick, Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis, Deryk Engelland, and Brendan Mikkelson.
Johnson has obvious physical gifts, but he hasn't gotten the job done at the NHL level so far. He might some day develop into a top-level player, but he would have to improve a lot just to be considered mediocre -- and if he doesn't then his 7-year, $30.5M contract will be an absolute albatross.
A mid-first round pick is a nice addition, but it is not even close to making up the difference here. The players are similar in age (25 vs 27) and cap hit ($4.36M vs 5.27M), but over the last five years Carter has been one of the best forwards in the league and Johnson has been one of the worst defensemen. This deal is a rout, and Kings fans should be elated.
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