You have to wind the clock back 20 years to find the last time we saw something like this in the NHL. The reigning Norris Trophy winner, finishing a season in dominant fashion, collecting his hardware, and never playing another game for the club.
Two decades ago, it was Scott Niedermayer, the longtime Devils defender winning the 2004 Norris in New Jersey, then donning an Anaheim Ducks sweater the next time he took the ice, leaving Jersey to sign with his brother’s club post-lockout. This time, it’s Erik Karlsson, who’s fresh off a resurgent, absurdly productive campaign only he could’ve foreseen.
With a career-high 25 goals and 101 points for San Jose in 2022-23, the veteran rearguard collected the third Norris of his career just two weeks ago. But when he returns to the sheet in a few months for the 2023-24 campaign, all signs suggest it’ll be with a different crest on his chest. And we need only listen to the man himself, and his GM Mike Grier, to get a sense of the likelihood of that move.
“I think he would like the chance to have an opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup, and I understand that,” Grier said of No. 65 late last month. “His timeline, where he is in his career, [it] doesn’t quite match up with where we are in our process of building this thing back up.”
“I think there’s a lot of teams that want to do it. Not necessarily a lot of teams that can do it,” Karlsson said a few weeks ago, while at the NHL Awards to collect his trophy. With a full no-move clause on his current deal, which runs for four more seasons, the blue-liner has final say on the trade he and the Sharks eventually accept. “I’m not looking to be greedy. I’m not looking to do what’s best for me personally. I want it professionally to be a good situation.
“That’s what I’m going to base my decision off, and I hope that obviously, sooner or later, we can figure out what those options are.”
With an $11.5-million cap hit, and a contract that will end with Karlsson closer to 40 years old than 30, orchestrating such a deal isn’t a simple task, though. And while the Sharks would surely love to rake in some important assets that can help them build for the future, and some extra cap space too, the club isn’t about to give their star defender away for nothing.
“For people who think we’re going to eat 50 per cent of his contract and all this type of stuff, it’s probably not going to happen,” said Grier. “Erik’s a special player. He’s on the path to being a Hall of Fame player. … He’s not someone who we’re just going to toss aside.”
Since the three-time Norris winner began rounding back into form, the rumour mill has run rampant with speculation on where a trade could take him, with a number of clubs reported to have been in conversation for the defender at different times. Who actually has the assets to pull off the deal remains to be seen. But which team would be the most interesting trade partner for the all-world rearguard?
We looked at the top clubs reportedly in the mix, and ranked the most intriguing potential landing spots for Karlsson this off-season:
The latest reporting on the Karlsson negotiations has it down to a two-team race, with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman identifying Pittsburgh and Carolina as the two most likely options at this point. And if we’re talking intrigue, if we’re talking storylines, what would be better than 33-year-old Karlsson linking up with fellow elder phenoms Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a wild Last Dance-esque run in black and gold?
There’s no mystery here — it should be clear why such a move would be a gift to hockey fans. Rewind back to some of the most impressive gems from No. 65’s highlight reel, to those passes that leave opponents spinning, that leave teammates with acres of unforeseen space to do damage, and imagine Crosby on the receiving end of that playmaking ability. Imagine the prospect of a power play featuring Karlsson, Crosby, Malkin, fellow offensively gifted blue-liner Kris Letang, and 40-goal threat Jake Guentzel.
For Pittsburgh, it’s an interesting choice of direction. On one hand, the chance to have one of Karlsson or Letang on the ice for nearly the entire game, to add some more dynamism and star power to their club after wilting a bit in those categories in recent years, would be a no-brainer. But on the other, adding more 30-plus to a club with plenty of veteran talent already doesn’t exactly help them build for the future. Still, for Kyle Dubas, who’s already done plenty to retool his new club’s roster, how better to announce his arrival in Pittsburgh than by landing a Norris winner and going all-in for another Crosby-era Cup run?
Back in February, the blockbuster deal the hockey world was waiting on was Karlsson-to-Edmonton, the Oilers and Sharks reportedly holding talks on a deal but winding up unable to get it over the line. With more room to operate in the off-season, and with the Oilers coming up short again in the post-season, might they revisit the possibility?
If they did, a move north would rank No. 2 on our list of landing spots that would gift hockey fans something special, for no other reason than the chance to see what Karlsson could do alongside Connor McDavid, the most prolific offensive talent in the world at this moment. If there’s one young, in-their-prime duo in the game that has shades of prime Crosby-Malkin, it’s surely McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. All four scorers bring something different to the table, but what they do have in common is their ability to stack points, and to be bold in how they do it. Something No. 65’s made his name doing for the past decade-and-a-half.
The need on Edmonton’s side is clear. The Oilers have had plenty of talented defenders on their roster over the years, but they haven’t had a true, undeniable No. 1 talent on the back end since their Cup Final run nearly two decades ago. For a squad that seems on the cusp of big things, but not quite there yet, Karlsson could be their missing piece, at least for a season or two. Most importantly, just watch this pass, and imagine a flying No. 97 on the end of it.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
As Sportsnet’s Luke Fox pointed out a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs need only look to the past two Cup finalists to understand why taking a swing on No. 65 would be worthwhile — in today’s NHL, boldness wins rings, and much like Vegas going for every big name who hits the market, or Florida shipping their leading scorer for a younger phenom, bringing in Karlsson would be the type of gamble that could change everything in Toronto.
No. 65 is, quite simply, the type of player this iteration of the Leafs has always craved — a dominant, dynamic right-handed defender who can do damage from the back end and run the power play with aplomb. And it’s on this last point, specifically, that the club needs him. For all the offensive talent huddled at the top of Toronto’s roster, they’ve run into a consistent problem in the moments that matter most — a power play that sputters when it should dominate. In Karlsson, they’d get the quarterback their man-advantage unit has long craved.
There’s no question Morgan Rielly is a skilled player, and has been a crucial part of the club’s ascent as the team’s No. 1 option on the back end. But at his best, he hasn’t been on the level of the Karlssons and Hedmans, particularly when it comes to running that power play, to getting the most out of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in those situations. With Karlsson running the show on the man-advantage, and Rielly still doing what he can do at 5-on-5, could Toronto take that next post-season step they’ve sought for the past half-decade?
As we mentioned earlier, far more likely than Karlsson winding up alongside Hart Trophy winners McDavid or Matthews is the veteran joining the Canes, as Carolina’s reportedly among the finalists for the Norris winner’s services. But while there’s no doubting Karlsson could help push Carolina to a higher level, the fit doesn’t come without a few question marks.
In terms of overall offence, it’s clear Carolina could use some help. The club finished in the middle of the pack with 3.20 goals per game last season, and their 20th-ranked power play did little to aid them in that area. On that front, throwing in a player who just topped 100 points from the blue line would have a pretty clear impact, particularly in helping the Canes’ young leaders hit an even higher level offensively. And given Carolina finished as the second-best team in the league last season, even with that faltering offence, an improved offensive approach could push them to the level they’ve been seeking for years, as a bona fide top contender.
Still, on the other hand, a move to Carolina means reuniting Karlsson and Brent Burns, who put up 61 points as the club’s No. 1 defender this past season. We’ve seen that combination before, and it wasn’t necessarily a home run. The pair helped push the Sharks to the Conference Final in their first season together, but they missed the playoffs for the next three. Other factors were involved, of course. But big-picture, what we do know is that when the two were separated and each had a greater role on their respective teams, they both thrived. Maybe a reunion gives them a chance to rekindle what they found in that first year together, or maybe it sets them back.
We’ll admit this one’s a long shot. The Senators already have their Karlsson heir in Thomas Chabot. They already swung a blockbuster for another core blue-line piece in Jakob Chychrun just a few months ago. They aren’t reportedly involved in the current negotiations to acquire Karlsson.
But they have thought about it. Early last season, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed the possibility of Karlsson returning to Ottawa, and Friedman reported back then that he believed discussions had taken place between the Sharks and Sens over a deal. It of course never came to be. But after losing one of their top scorers in Alex DeBrincat, after seeing their young core take longer than expected to turn potential into post-season results, is there a chance the Sens take another run at bringing back the franchise legend?
The fit wouldn’t be flawless, as Ottawa’s roster is already stacked with young, talented defenders who need ice and opportunity to continue to flourish. But bringing back Karlsson would also give those young blue-line talents as great a mentor as they could hope for. Overall, the move would add even more of the veteran offensive savvy Claude Giroux brought when he returned home last season. Most importantly, though, in terms of pure intrigue potential, what would be better than Karlsson returning to Ottawa, running it back with a squad now chock full of young, hungry, top-tier talent, and going on a run or two before he hangs up his skates as a Senator?