Writing on the Wall for Matt Carle

It was a coach’s decision that didn’t make a splash. The kind of decision that NHL coaches make almost daily during the season. Before each game, an NHL coach has to decide which 18 non-goalie players are going to dress for that game.

The coach takes into consideration which player cannot go because of an injury. Then of the remaining players, the coach chooses who will dress for the game and who will watch from high in the rafters with a suit and a tie.

For the first time in his Tampa Bay Lightning career, defensemen Matt Carle was a healthy scratch last Saturday night in a game against the Boston Bruins. As stated, the news that Carle wasn’t going to play that night wasn’t headline news. Barely made a ripple but it does and will have an effect on both Carle and the team.

Iron Man

Prior to last season, I wrote an article for another site on Matt Carle and how he was an Iron Man for the Lightning. During a stretch from 2010-11 season through the 2013-14 season, Carle had not missed a single game. Not due to injury and certainly not due to a coach’s decision. That was 294 consecutive games for Carle, playing for two different NHL teams.

Add to that the 47 consecutive games he played from the beginning of the 2014-15 season for the Lightning before he missed some games with a torn abductor muscle and the total is 341 consecutive NHL games. Then mix in that he played 80 of 82 games for the Flyers in the 2009-10 season and you realize that in a span of over five and one half NHL seasons, out of 423 games on the schedule for the teams Carle played for, he suited up for 421 of them.

Matt Carle (Rhys A./ Wikimedia Commons)
Matt Carle, then with the Philadelphia Flyers(Rhys A./ Wikimedia Commons)

In such a physically demanding game with brutal hits and pucks flying around at speeds of over 100 MPH, to think that any player plays as often as Carle did and it deserves recognition.

Coming into this season, Carle, who is the highest paid Lightning defensemen, began hearing some chirping from the fans in Amalie Arena. At 31 years-old, Carle is the oldest defenseman on the team. Sure, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn are only a year younger but Carle has been the target of some boo-birds in the stands.

Part of the reason is that Carle earns more money than any other players on the team except Steven Stamnkos, Ryan Callahn and Ben Bishop. For a guy with that hefty a paycheck, right or wrong, more is expected than Carle seems to be delivering from the fan’s perspective.

Where he once played a solid 20 minutes a game, Carle is down to 18 minutes a game and was a healthy scratch last Saturday by coach, Jon Cooper. In addressing the media regarding the scratch, Cooper said all the right things about preserving all his players during the grueling NHL season and wanting to give others an opportunity to play.

Carle, to his credit, did not address the issue at all with the media, instead directing questions to Cooper for the decision. It was reminiscent of a year ago, when the Lightning with a veteran defensemen playing below his pay grade, began to be a healthy scratch.

That player, Eric Brewer, also directed questions to the coach about being scratched. Brewer, like Carle had been an associate captain during his time in Tampa. After a couple of weeks, Brewer was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks, who later traded Brewer to Toronto.

Bolts & Habs battle (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)
Eric Brewer with the Lightning. (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)

Money and Depth

If the Lightning truly want to re-sign Steven Stamkos to a long term contract, there are some contracts that stand in the way of that happening and Carle’s contract is chief among those. At $5.5 million dollars, trading away that contract, even if the team eats a portion of the salary would free up money to seal the Stamkos deal.

Has Carle played himself out of the Lightning lineup? Perhaps he has, but one thing that general manager Steve Yzerman has done is fill the organization with talent at just about every position. This fact means that you perform or you get out of the way for someone who does.

Among defensemen, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are the top pair, Coburn and Garrison are the second blue line duo. Carle and Andrej Sustr have made up the third defensive pair but a young guy like Nikita Nesterov needs to play.

Nesterov possesses a much better shot from the point than Carle and is faster on the ice. With his experience, Carle gets the nod over Nesterov on the defensive side but not by much. When you glance down at the defensemen playing for the organization in Syracuse in the AHL and you realize that the Lightning have a plethora of young, capable future NHL defensemen.

Both Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski have seen time in Tampa last season. Both have size and bring a physical game to the Lightning. Upon further review, you see three young blue liners that are perhaps a year or two away in Jake Dotchin, Dylan Blujus and 2014’s first round draft pick, Anthony DeAngelo.

None of this bodes well for Carle. After sitting Saturday’s game against Boston, Carle looked rusty on Sunday in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricane.

He lost his footing three times by my count. He struggles to get the puck out of the defensive zone then relies on pitchforking the puck to center ice. Not far enough to allow a line change and too close that a quick pass can put the opposing team in front of your net with the puck.

There is no doubt that Matt Carle still has some good hockey left in him. With his no movement clause on his contract, he would have to approve any trade Yzerman can bring to him. It may be time to part ways.

Carle doesn’t deserve the boos and vitriol he receives from the fans. From their viewpoint, the fans say Carle doesn’t deserve to be the highest paid defensemen on the Lightning roster. Both are valid points. At this time something has to give, like Eric Brewer last year, perhaps a trade to a new team would be just what both the Lightning and Carle need right now.