Why going all-in on Erik Karlsson is worth it to speed up Canadiens’ rebuild

Don Brennan joins Kyle Bukauskas to discuss whether Erik Karlsson could return to the Ottawa Senators.

MONTREAL—This is not an opportunity the Montreal Canadiens can turn away from, if it is in fact an opportunity being presented to them.

Assuming Don Brennan’s story in the Ottawa Sun checks out—that impending unrestricted free agent Erik Karlsson is hoping for competitive offers from the Ottawa Senators and Canadiens so his wife, Melinda, can be closer to the family she misses so dearly—the Canadiens must do everything possible to come out on the winning side of that battle.

Maybe on the surface that opinion flies in the face of a sound, long-term strategy Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin set in motion just a summer ago. Heck, we know it definitely belies the idea that Karlsson’s best days are behind him, that after having half his ankle bone removed in a 2017 surgery or after a groin injury forced him to miss time in San Jose, he just hasn’t been the same player.

But we’re of the opinion that Karlsson, the 29-year-old Swede who has scored more points than any National Hockey League defenceman other than Brent Burns since the 2012 lockout, is still a superstar, will be a superstar for the foreseeable future, and that the Canadiens are still in desperate need of superstars.

So, if it means giving Karlsson a maximum-term contract of seven years and an $11-million annual salary so that he is paid fair value in comparison to his peers (see Doughty, Drew of the Los Angeles Kings), so be it. It might not end up costing that much, but even if it does the Canadiens should roll out the red carpet, land this superstar and then adjust elsewhere.

It doesn’t matter that the Canadiens already have Shea Weber and Jeff Petry slotted into top roles on the right side of their defence. It doesn’t matter that Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook and Cale Fleury are right-handed defencemen and promising prospects who are all on their way up. It doesn’t matter that the team has needs on the left side of its defence, either. Acquiring Karlsson, who is still among the best skaters in the world, arguably the best puck-moving defenceman in the world, and who can play upwards of 30 minutes a night in all situations, is the type of move that could allow the Canadiens to contend much sooner than expected — and that’s not an opportunity they can ignore.

Making such a move doesn’t really force Bergevin back to the drawing board, anyway. His plan to infuse the roster with youth and speed can remain intact with the Canadiens owning considerable flexibility under a salary cap that’s rising to around $83 million for the 2019-20 season. In fact, there’s very little Bergevin would need to do ahead of this season to fit Karlsson in.

As it stands, Montreal has just over $71 million committed to 14 forwards, seven defencemen and two goaltenders. In other words, a full team, plus remaining restricted free agents Charles Hudon, Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia aren’t going to break the bank in contract negotiations.

Even if the latter two are in for considerable raises, fitting Karlsson under next season’s cap could boil down to a single minor move. Maybe it means trading 27-year-old Andrew Shaw, who just had a career season (19 goals and 47 points in 63 games) and is under contract for three more years at $3.9 million per. Maybe 30-year-old Paul Byron, who had 15 goals in 56 games after scoring at least 20 in both of the previous two seasons, proves more attractive to other teams as he embarks on a new four-year, $13.6-million deal signed last September. Or maybe Petry, who’s got two years left at $5.5 million per, is the ideal trade candidate—even if he has a no-movement clause in his deal that allows him to select 15 teams he wouldn’t go to.

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As much as all three of those players are embedded in the fabric of the current roster, you have to think their long-term futures in Montreal were already being weighed against the opportunity to add more young assets to the Canadiens via trade over the next couple of years. It could be that Shaw and Byron were pieces the Canadiens might dangle to get some help on the left side of the defence, or that Petry would net an A-level prospect or a first-round draft pick as a rental in a year’s time.

If acquiring Karlsson forces Bergevin to move quicker on those decisions, we’re sure he’d agree it’d be a good problem to have.

Another couple: Max Domi’s going to need a new contract next summer and if he’s every bit as good as he was in 2018-19 (he scored 28 goals and led the Canadiens with 72 points in 82 games) it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Two-time 30-goal scorer Brendan Gallagher will be due a major raise in the summer of 2021. And Tomas Tatar only has two more seasons left under contract. Those will all be tough situations for Bergevin to figure out if he commits big money and term to Karlsson.

But he’d have Erik Karlsson.

He’d have Karlsson, superstar goaltender Carey Price, Weber, Jonathan Drouin, likely Domi and some of the best up-and-coming players in the world in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Alex Romanov, Brook and Fleury among others already in the Canadiens’ system.

The Atlantic Division is brimming with talent: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares in Toronto; Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay; Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy in Boston; Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo; Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are potentially being joined by Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida; Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Erik Brannstrom are on the rise in Ottawa; and Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Filip Zadina anchor a young, talented core in Detroit.

So just having a chance to obtain one of the best players in the world is something the Canadiens would have to consider a blessing.

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