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Flyers’ Carter is definitely a keeper

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At different points during the 2007-08 season, trade winds swirled around Philadelphia Flyers center Jeff Carter.

In the last year of his rookie contract, Carter was nearly dealt to Vancouver for defensive center Ryan Kesler and almost to Toronto for defenseman Tomas Kaberle.

Fortunately for the Flyers, neither deal was consummated. And this year, Carter has blown away all trade talk with his breakout season.

"Even through all that talk last year, he was a very good performer," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He played his best hockey the last half of the year and the playoffs when some of that conversation was taking place. And then he comes in this year having signed a new contract, and it didn't affect him. If anything, it affected him in a positive way."

Sure, it was nice for Carter to sign a three-year, $15 million contract. But different numbers define him this season: 38 goals and 68 points. He's third in the league in goals, nine behind leader Alex Ovechkin, whom Carter and the Flyers will face for the final time in the regular season Thursday at Wachovia Center.

Carter also made his first All-Star team this season and has more than lived up to his contract and status as a first-round pick.

"I've been playing with a lot of confidence," the 24-year-old said. "I think a lot of that is coming from the coaches putting me in positions to succeed - playing the end of the game, power play, penalty kill - all that stuff, it's just building up, and I'm having fun with it."

Carter had set career highs in goals and points by early February and has never recorded this many shots in a season. But the abstract concept of "confidence" has a lot to do with it.

Whether confidence has to do with playing with teammates Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul for the past three months or with a renewed motivation, Carter has shown plenty of it to his coach and teammates.

"He's a year older. He has more emotion in his game," Stevens said. "He looks like he expects to score now going into hockey games, but he doesn't give up any of his defensive responsibilities. I think it's just the progression of a young player maturing with confidence."

The maturation process just happened to coincide with some juicy trade talk. In the fall of 2007, talk centered on a deal that would have sent Kesler - a player the Flyers tried to sign to an offer sheet a year earlier - to Philadelphia. Closer to the 2008 deadline, there was talk of Kaberle becoming a member of the Flyers... until he refused to waive his no-trade clause.

All the while, Carter kept wearing the orange and black and tried not to let the talk affect his game. He couldn't think too much about getting dealt.

"You can't as a player, especially with me. As a young guy, I got nothing going on in Philly, so it's really out of my control," Carter said. "Bottom line is you gotta go out and still play every night, no matter what's going on."

Carter has produced like a player who doesn't want to go anywhere. And while he attributed his improved play to getting more opportunities, Carter has earned those chances by helping shoulder the Flyers' scoring load while Danny Briere has been out most of the season with a groin injury.

But Carter hasn't done it in a vacuum. One reason he has joined the upper echelon of NHL scorers is his continuity with linemates Hartnell and Lupul.

The three have played together since early December on what was dubbed the "Center City Line" - Carter, Hartnell and Lupul live four blocks from each other in center city Philadelphia.

Hartnell (24 goals) and Lupul (20) rank in the top five on the team in scoring.

"We played together pretty much all year," Carter said, "and you just get comfortable with each other, you kinda feed off each other and it's gone well."

In the Flyers' last game against the Caps, the line was split for the first two periods. Reunited to start the third, they accounted for two goals in two minutes to spark Philadelphia to a 4-3 comeback victory.

That spark isn't a rare, either. Carter is tied with for second in the league with nine game-winning goals.

"Some nights - well, most nights, he's playing unbelievable," Hartnell said. "He's got a great shot - deceptive shot - and he's always hanging around that net. And he's been putting 'em in for us. He's been a big catalyst for us, and I've been fortunate enough to play with him. He's been hot the whole year, and we just gotta keep this going."

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