Grading the Erik Karlsson trade: Penguins land the big fish

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      Erik Karlsson is finally a Penguin. And Kyle Dubas – in just over three months – has completely changed the complexion of the Pittsburgh franchise.

      Is it for the better? After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 17 years, will the Penguins be contenders for years to come? All that remains to be seen. But I love the big swing from Pittsburgh’s new GM and President of Hockey Operations.

      The Karlsson trade was complex: a three-way deal between Montreal, Pittsburgh, and San Jose. And it would be a disservice not to include the rest of the pieces involved. 

      In total, seven bonafide NHL players changed teams. Three draft picks were shuffled around. And a small amount of money was retained by the Penguins and Canadiens. With so many moving parts, it’s no surprise that the trade took so long to complete.

      Time to hand out some grades.


      Grade: A-

      One thing is for certain: the Penguins won’t be boring.

      Adding Karlsson – the reigning Norris Trophy winner – is yet another example of the mold Pittsburgh is attempting to forge: a team that attacks in waves, led by speed from the backend. Penguins defensive stalwart Kris Letang can skate. New addition Ryan Graves can as well. And now Pittsburgh has Karlsson to further accelerate a team that had become (perhaps unsurprisingly) stagnant during the 2022-23 season.

      What I find most interesting is that the trade is essentially a do-over for the Penguins organization. After just one season in Pittsburgh, defenseman Jeff Petry gets boomeranged to Montreal – the same team he played for from 2015 until 2022. Blueliner Jan Rutta lasted one year. And the trade for forward Mikael Granlund at the 2023 trade deadline – a resounding failure that cost the Penguins a second-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft – is now wiped clean.

      All three players came to Pittsburgh under the watch of former GM Ron Hextall. And given the franchise’s failure to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s easy to understand why Dubas decided to move on from past transgressions.

      Adding Karlsson might seem redundant for a team that already employs the right-handed, offensive-minded Letang. And there’s some truth to that: defending is a real concern for both. Especially Karlsson. Pittsburgh wasn’t good enough defensively during the 2022-23 season and adding Karlsson to the lineup is a pause for concern.

      But what essentially happened is Dubas replaced Petry with Karlsson. Last season there was a 70-point difference between the defenders. Karlsson had 101 points: 27 of which were on the powerplay. Petry had 31 points and only nine came with the man advantage. The numbers speak for themselves, and Karlsson – who is almost three years younger than Petry – is a better skater.

      I also think Dubas is trying to protect the Penguins from injury. Letang has been sidelined for a significant portion of his career, and at 36 years old, it’s hard to imagine that trend improving. And to me, the Penguins simply aren’t the same without him.

      Karlsson alleviates the offensive vacuum when Letang is out of the lineup. And despite having injury problems during his first four seasons with San Jose, Karlsson played the full 82-game schedule in 2022-23 for the fourth time in his 14-year NHL career.

      Pittsburgh also received Rem Pitlick from Montreal. The 26-year old forward spent half of the 2022-23 season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, but he’s shown well at the NHL level previously. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher had 26 points in 46 games for the Canadiens during the 2021-22 campaign. He’s another intriguing depth piece for Dubas: Pitlick can play all three forward positions.

      And in the ‘noteworthy but unsurprising’ category: Pittsburgh moved goaltender Casey DeSmith to Montreal. After a disappointing 2022-23 season, I did not expect DeSmith to return with the Penguins despite having one year remaining on his $1.8 million AAV contract. Moving the veteran goaltender not only opened cap space, it also paved the way for newly-signed netminder Alex Nedeljkovic to jumpstart his NHL career.

      In one trade, Dubas essentially managed to clear $3 million in cap space and acquire a 100-point, right-handed defender (Karlsson) in exchange for a first and second-round draft pick. To get a player of his caliber, it’s the cost of doing business. And the Penguins still have a first round selection in two of the next three NHL Drafts.


      Grade: C

      The Sharks not only received a first round draft pick from the Penguins, the Bay Area team also received quality roster players. Mike Hoffman, Mikael Granlund, and Jan Rutta will all suit up in teal for the 2023-24 season.

      In the end, San Jose GM Mike Grier failed to receive the multiple first round draft picks he was seeking in return for Karlsson. But the deal is done. A burden has been lifted. Karlsson was done with the Sharks. And Grier only had to retain $1.5 million in cap space through the 2026-27 season: much less than was initially expected in any deal for Karlsson.

      The trade wasn’t a home run by any stretch, but given the stagnant nature of the NHL’s salary cap, the meager return for Karlsson was adequate. Especially considering how little salary was retained, which gives Grier flexibility down the road. Which helps if the Sharks’ rebuild starts to move ahead of schedule.

      San Jose now has four draft picks in the first two rounds of the 2024 NHL Draft. And the Sharks received three players that should help the team be respectable on the ice. Even better: none of them are on long-term contracts. Hoffman will be UFA after the 2023-24 season, while Granlund and Rutta are up for new deals in 2025.

      The bottom line is that San Jose waited so long to move Karlsson that the franchise had to rip off the band-aid eventually. With just over a month before training camp opens, the Sharks needed to get their house in order. But I can’t help but wonder if Grier set the bar too high in initial trade talks and left assets on the table.


      Grade: B

      Since Kent Hughes took over as GM in January of 2022, Montreal has done an incredible job of dumpster diving. The Canadiens have sold off pieces, retooled on the fly, and amassed a stockpile of draft picks along the way.

      The Habs’ prospect pool is deep, especially on the blueline. And it’s stunning to think the franchise isn’t done rebuilding yet. Montreal has 27 picks in the next three NHL Drafts; four of which are in the first-round. Five more are in the second round.

      By helping facilitate the Karlsson deal, Montreal acquired a 2025 second-round pick from Pittsburgh. And to me, it’s the biggest haul of the trade. Whether the Canadiens use the pick, or decide to move it eventually, a second-rounder is extremely valuable.

      Hughes also managed to clear Mike Hoffman’s $4.5 million salary off the books, while adding Petry back into the mix. To me, the move was born of necessity. After the Canadiens traded defenseman Joel Edmundson to the Washington Capitals on July 1, 2023, there was a glaring need for a veteran presence on the blue line. Especially considering how unpopular Edmundson’s trade was within the locker room.

      I’m curious to see where DeSmith lands. Montreal now has three NHL netminders. Jake Allen has two years left at $3.85 million, and Samuel Montembeault took a big step forward during the 2022-23 season, when he played 40 games and posted a .901 save percentage behind a youthful Canadiens lineup.

      And then there’s goaltender Cayden Primeau. Despite a career .871 save percentage in 21 NHL appearances, and a .909 save percentage in 123 AHL games, the American-born netminder is on a one-way NHL contract through 2024-25. 

      Goaltending depth was a problem for Montreal last season when Allen missed time due to injury. DeSmith provides insurance. Maybe more. But I can’t help but wonder if Montreal would consider moving Allen. He would be an ideal 1B or No.2 netminder for a Stanley Cup contender.

      As it stands, Montreal has four goalies on one-way NHL contracts for the 2023-24 season. Taking DeSmith from Pittsburgh may have been a requisite in the Karlsson deal, but it created a logjam in the crease. Maybe Montreal ends up flipping DeSmith: something has to give.

      Montreal improved on the ice and at the draft table with this trade. But the Habs still have some work to do in order to finalize their roster for the 2022-23 season.


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