Here’s the thing about trading Erik Karlsson: It’s never going to be easy.
Not now, in the rushed hours before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline. Not in June at the entry draft, even with fewer cap constraints and more suitors. Not in July, when sign-and-trade scenarios could potentially come into play.
The only thing that changes over time with this type of franchise-altering decision is where the leverage lies. And for the next three-plus days the Ottawa Senators are in a more powerful position than they’re likely to find themselves afterwards.
For starters, they don’t have to move their captain now. He’s under contract through July 2019, and even in a sub-par season remains a superstar in a star-driven league. Having the ability to step away from the table during trade talks is useful.
This is not a deal Pierre Dorion is itching to make. On the eighth day, God created Erik Karlsson, the Senators general manage famously said last spring.
However, judging by conversations with his peers in recent days, it’s a move many around the league now believe he’s resigned himself to make – most likely in the off-season, but potentially before the deadline.
That means the time to act is now.
Once you’ve opened the door to trading one of the top players in the game, all that truly matters is the return. And Karlsson, as an asset, will never be more valuable than he is today.
Think about it: A defenceman of his calibre is never available on the trade market in the prime of his career. Karlsson is playing on a cap-friendly contract – his $6.5-million AAV is 14th among NHL blueliners – and he’ll significantly outperform that number until free agency arrives, which fits perfectly in the window for a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning to go all-in on a Stanley Cup chase.
(Other suitors? Step right up…)
As soon as Karlsson is paid commensurate to his actual value – set your watches for July 1, 2019 – he’s not quite as valuable to the team employing him. He’ll still be a game-changer and difference-maker, sure, but his eight-figure cap hit will soak up some valuable space which can’t be allocated elsewhere.
It’s an important consideration when weighing what a Karlsson trade might look like this summer. Especially one that includes him signing a long-term extension with the acquiring team.
Ottawa loses some control in that scenario because Dorion would obviously need to work with the 27-year-old on striking a deal with a city/organization he likes – the Sens are currently only restricted by a 10-team no-trade list – and the GM will have missed out on the opportunity to extract extra value for a 2018 playoff run involving Karlsson.
Now contrast that with what he could sell now: A high-value contract for a superstar defenceman that covers one full season and two shots at a championship. An item so rare that you can’t really find a true trade comparable to gauge what the return should be.
At minimum, Ottawa should be able to extract five pieces in such a transaction – multiple draft picks, including a first-rounder to replace the one already dealt away for Matt Duchene; two top-end prospects; and at least one established player.
They may even be able to staple Bobby Ryan to Karlsson and shed themselves of more than $30-million in remaining salary commitments to the oft-injured winger, although that would weaken the quality of future assets coming back in return.
There is also a third option here, but it’s not believed to be where this is headed: The Senators could hang on to Karlsson and work to extend him themselves. They would shift the leverage back to the player in that scenario – potentially having to wait through next season for his decision, a la John Tavares and the New York Islanders, all-the-while seeing his trade value diminish as his UFA status drew closer.
It’s a tough spot for an organization that has endured plenty of on- and off-ice losses this season. Truth be told, the Senators may not be able to get a true “win” here.
But there is a way to mitigate the losses if they’ve already determined that No. 65 won’t see the end of his contract in the nation’s capital, and it involves working inside a limited market over the next 72 hours and making a trade while they have full control of the situation.
The available pool of teams to negotiate with might grow this summer, but pulling the trigger isn’t going to get any easier if they wait.