Matt Carle finally appreciated in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Carle (25) celebrates with left wing Benoit Pouliot (67) and defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron (47) after scoring against the Ottawa Senators during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. -- From the time last season started until it ended abruptly against New Jersey, Matt Carle was nagged with questions about his contract status.

Carle wanted to be a Flyer. The Flyers wanted him to stay in Philadelphia.

Along the way, negotiations continued to hit snags. First, the Flyers didn’t have enough “tagging space” - or the inability to exceed this season’s salary cap in next season’s commitments. James van Riemsdyk, Braydon Coburn and even newcomer Nick Grossmann were handed fat, fresh extensions before Carle.

Then, the Flyers decided to target two big-name defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, leaving the under-appreciated Carle hanging on July 1.

“I always believed, up until the last minute, that I was going to be coming back,” Carle told the Daily News on Sunday morning after the Lightning's pre-game skate. “For me, I think I was ‘Plan B’ for a lot of teams. I was waiting out Suter. To sit and wonder what was going on was a bit weird. You hear July 1 and you think something’s going to happen that day. That gave me some time, and the Flyers, I’m sure, and other organizations to see how it was going to play out and do some homework.”

Carle did his homework. So did Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning, finding a gifted defenseman who has matured into a consistent, well-rounded skater.

A proud American and Alaska native, Carle inked a 6-year, $33 million on July 4 to make him the NHL’s 20th highest-paid player based on average salary ($5.5 million).

Carle will get his first crack at his former team on Sunday evening (6 o’clock) at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

“I love him,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher gushed. “Him and (Sami) Salo have changed our defense corps. They bring poise, they bring puck movement. Every team has their own specific needs, but he fit exactly what we needed here.”

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren gambled and lost. Suter went to Minnesota. Nashville matched the offer sheet for Shea Weber. And the Flyers were left with a significantly weaker defense.

They also had enough cap space left over to sign Carle at his current rate. Tough to swallow, since Holmgren said in May he believed he could get Carle then at “under market value.”

Consider a healthy Flyers blue line with Carle: Coburn, Grossmann, Luke Schenn, Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen.

Now consider the current reality, without Carle and Meszaros on the shelf: Coburn, Grossmann, Schenn, Timonen, Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster.

Big difference, right?

Suddenly, any of the unwarranted complaints that Flyers fans made about Carle’s “turnover-prone” game blow right out the window. He logged more minutes (1,888) than any player on the team, 102 more than fitness freak Coburn.

Peter Laviolette raved about his consistency. It’s important to keep in mind, too, when criticizing his playoff play, that he underwent offseason surgery to repair a tear in his abdominal wall. He rarely ever missed practice and never complained.

He was never a fan favorite in Philly because he is not overly physical and does not have a heavy shot. Teammate Max Talbot once joked when a puck him in the mouth in practice that it was a good thing because Carle’s shot is like a “muffin.”

That ‘muffin’ seems to be servicing the Lightning just fine. Carle has 3 points in his first 4 games in Tampa Bay (3-1-0). Carle netted 137 points in 308 regular season games with the Flyers, adding an incredible 26 points in 51 postseason games from the blue line.

“He gives false information (deception) when he handles the puck, which is really important because it gives our players more time now to get open,” Boucher said. “He really added on to our defensive game and our our offensive game.”

Carle, 28, was one of the best statistically-rated “moneypuck” defensemen in hockey’s advanced stats world. His new defensive partner Eric Brewer isn’t surprised.

“Sometimes, I guess you take guys for granted,” Brewer said. “He’s not a big, flashy personality. He understands how the game is played. Sometimes, it’s good that he (flew under the radar). He plays lots of games, lot of minutes. 

“You just get used to him keep playing, moving the puck forward. He handles the puck well, he makes a lot of good pinches, and he’s comfortable moving the puck in traffic. A lot of our guys have been able to get good looks from him.”

Both Brewer and Boucher noted Carle’s ability to deftly retrieve pucks out of the corners and off the wall to get the Lightning up ice. Think about that next time the Flyers are hemmed in their own zone for a period of time.

For Carle, the decision to land back in Tampa Bay wasn’t solely about the money. Surely, the $3 million signing bonus with a lockout looming and the perks of a 6-year deal were head-turners. But Carle was interested to see where he fit in Boucher’s system.

The Flyers’ visit to Tampa Bay on Nov. 9, 2011 - when Laviolette instructed his team to famously sit back and wait for the Lightning to forecheck, which drew a penalty for not advancing the puck - stuck in his mind.

“It wasn’t just a money decision,” Carle said. “It was a handful of teams, I wanted to figure out how I would fit their system, their style of play, what type of city it would be like to live in, everything like that. There were a lot of different variables.”

He remembers sitting in the Flyers’ locker room pre-game, listening to Laviolette’s instructions.

“I don’t want to say guys were second-guessing it but we almost did a double-take. ‘Are you sure you just want us to stand there? And wait it out minutes at a time?’,” Carle said. “I don’t think anyone thought it would play out like it did. Maybe wait 5 or 10 seconds and then somebody would come and chase. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. It was probably one of the weirdest games I’ve ever been a part of.

“I hope we don’t ever see that again.”

Now, Carle is a part of that Lightning setup. Again. He signed in Tampa Bay, of all places, after the Lightning traded him in 2008 to the Flyers when their mis-managed ownership realized they could not afford him 12 games into the season.

He was one of the rare players with a tenure in Tampa Bay shorter than coach Barry Melrose. With a new owner, a new GM and a new coach, Carle’s first run-in did not dissuade him from returning. He’s bought a new house, which he is renovating with his wife, Clancey, in the South Tampa Bay area.

“It’s been a process, we’re still really getting settled,” Carle said. “I’m married now, looking to start a family. There is some familiarity here, and a lot of different variables that went into coming here.”

Carle harbors no ill-will toward the Flyers, despite the fact that he was not made a big priority. He has finally landed with a franchise who appreciates his talent, but Philadelphia will always have a spot in his heart.

“It was a good 4 years that I was there,” Carle said. “Sometimes, it’s part of the business to move on. Being down here or being in San Jose, you see how fans appreciate an organization, but it was something to see when I went to Philly. That was a big thing for me, coming here.”

For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers