I'm not even sure underrated is the perfect word. Under-appreciated? Under the radar? Perhaps any of those adages could be used to describe Ryan Carter, who was all the rage last night in the Devils thrilling victory. He seems to have a knack for scoring against our most bitter Rivals, and particularly in Madison Square Rangersburg, which TG aptly re-named "Carter Country". Not a bad way to ingratiate yourself to the Devils fanbase. I didn't realize, until reading that Michael Russo article about Carter that I just linked, that Ryan passed through waivers on two other occasions prior to the time the Devils claimed him. It's not altogether surprising since his career was pretty unremarkable in a lot of ways, short of getting his name on the Stanley Cup before ever playing in a regular season game, and probably continues to be in the eyes of a casual fan or outsider, . It's possible Carter was doing all of the same things back then that he is now for the Devils, but just flew under the radar because his contributions don't show up on the scoresheet most nights. I'm not so sure though.
His career stats are pretty underwhelming. He's a pretty average shooter. He's not a dominant possession player. It does appear as if Carter contributed in a pretty challenging role during his first NHL season with the Ducks. In the 34 games he saw the ice, Carter played in some challenging situations against tough opponents, mostly on a line with Rob Neidermayer and Travis Moen. Pinned back in your own zone doing what you can to slow down the other team's best weapons isn't the most glamorous job, but it's a really important one nonetheless. Carter's first NHL season unfortunately was cut short by an unusual injury, where his hand got stuck in a photographer's hole in the glass and required surgery.
This first season was probably the most success Carter ever had in Anaheim, as he bounced in and out of the lineup over the next two seasons, before exiting Anaheim courtesy of a trade to Carolina. After never really catching on in Carolina, it was off to Florida in a late season trade. Florida was also a short lived adventure for Ryan because after signing an offseason deal to remain with the Panthers, he found himself back on waivers just a few games into the 2011-2012 season. Unlike the other times, he was claimed by the New Jersey Devils and immediately caught on.
Now if you think back carefully to the 2011-2012 season, it actually started out with some really awful fourth lines that contained Brad "Andy" Mills on a few occasions and more often then not, both Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. Not this dynamo Cam Janssen the Devils have now sniping goals. This other Cam Janssen that punched faces. Ryan Carter represented the beginning stages of the useful fourth line in New Jersey. Although, that fourth line remained very un-useful for a good part of that season, it was a testament to Carter's good play that his most common linemate was David Clarkson, while Both Janssen's and Boulton's was Carter. Huh? Well, basically that means that although the three (Boulton, Carter, Janssen) started off together on the fourth line, Carter went on to get useful shifts long after an adequate amount of faces were punched.
Actually, another dimension of Carter's game happens to be the fact that he is not afraid to drop the gloves. It's actually my least favorite part of his game, and it almost certainly developed due to his time spent on the Devils boxing gym style fourth line. I will say, it was always fun watching him clobber Brandon Dubinsky, but Carter is not a fighter by trade and can make very useful contributions with his hands other than forming fists and thrusting them forward into someone's face.
The useful fourth line that emerged, quite obviously, was the CBGB line that quickly became the apple of a young Peter DeBoer's eye. During the 2012-2013 season the new best friends forever remained attached at the hip. Carter once again saw significant time on the penalty kill, and proved he can be trusted in these situations too. While Ryan is probably not someone you want to rely on as your top killer, he is definitely someone you can feel comfortable rolling out there who will be responsible in his own end. And that's just one of the things that is so valuable about Ryan Carter. It's great to have someone on your fourth line who can kill penalties; someone that you can throw out there against reasonably tough competition and feel comfortable that he will play responsibly in his own zone while working hard on the forecheck and also creating some offense on occasion. He's not going to dominate possession, but he's not going to be a liability either.
The two goals for Carter in last night's game were his first two of the season. Carter could score 10 goals this season, I would think. It would represent the first time in his career he scored over 10 goals in one season if he can accomplish the task. To me, this would be a very impressive feat if Carter's usage by the Devils coaching staff remains the same. Through the first 15 games, Carter started out in the offensive zone less than any other Devils forward by far. Getting useful minutes from fourth line players who can chip in around 10 goals, and just having guys you don't have to protect but can use freely in somewhat challenging situations is a huge advantage in the NHL today. Carter is one of those guys for New Jersey - the first of these guys in the Pete DeBoer era. Not to mention, his contract is an incredibly great value for the Devils, who are paying less than seven figures for a guy who contributes significantly every game.
I'm not sure if something new has clicked for Ryan in his time with the Devils. Perhaps he has finally found a system that he plays well within. Or, maybe he has found his niche, understands his role, and knows what he needs to do to contribute on a nightly basis. Whatever it is, there is no chance he would pass through waivers, and also no reason he should be on waivers again the way things are going. I don't want him anywhere except in in the Devils lineup on a nightly basis. In my opinion, Ryan Carter has gone from castaway to one of the more useful fourth line players in the NHL.