It wasn’t the Tampa Bay Lightning or Dallas Stars after all. After months of speculation, the San Jose Sharks emerged from the depths to win the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes. The price they paid, juxtaposed with the impact a future Hall of Famer will have, makes this trade an absolute coup for San Jose.
As reported Thursday in pieces trickling in from the likes of TSN’s Darren Dreger, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Sharks acquired Karlsson and left winger Francis Perron from the Ottawa Senators for center Chris Tierney, defenseman Dylan DeMelo, left winger Rudolfs Balcers, center Josh Norris, a 2019 or 2020 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick and two conditional picks. If the Sharks miss the playoffs in 2018-19, the first-round pick will be in 2019. Otherwise, it’s a 2020 first-rounder. As for the other conditional picks, as outlined by Friedman, “Should the Sharks sign Karlsson to a contract extension, Ottawa receives San Jose’s second-round selection in 2021, which would upgrade to a first-round selection (not lottery protected) if San Jose reaches the Stanley Cup final in 2019. If Karlsson is on an Eastern Conference roster (reserve list) during the 2018-19 season, the Senators will receive an additional first-round pick from the Sharks no later than 2022.”
Not extending Karlsson’s contract as part of the trade works out brilliantly for GM Doug Wilson. The Sharks only pay a “rental” price for technically acquiring one year of Karlsson, and any conditions they have to meet upon re-signing him will obviously be worth it. If an extension happens deep into the season or even after the season, by then it would mean he’s worked out great as a Shark and shown his left ankle, surgically repaired a year ago, looks fully recovered. If they don’t extend Karlsson over the next few weeks, that’s OK, as the Sharks are essentially betting on themselves to woo him over the course of this season. Look how quickly Evander Kane decided to re-up after coming over as a trade-deadline rental this past winter. The Sharks offer great weather, a rabid fan market that still offers relative obscurity from uber-celebrity status and a leadership-rich dressing room including Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. It would qualify as a shock if Karlsson and wife Melinda don’t fall in love with San Jose. Most big-name players who go there tend to stay there for extended periods.
As for what Wilson gave up, it’s easily worth Karlsson, especially if you put the trade in context of where the Sharks are as a franchise. In Norris and Balcers, they surrendered their No. 1 and 5 prospects according to The Hockey News’ Future Watch rankings, which are determined by an esteemed panel of NHL scouts and executives. But “1” and “5” don’t mean as much on the Sharks as they would on certain teams. Because they’ve been so consistently competitive for the past decade and a half, missing the playoffs just once in 14 years, they rarely possess high draft picks, and our panel regularly ranks their farm crop among the league’s worst. Norris might be San Jose’s top prospect, but he’d slot nowhere near that high on a prospect-rich club like, say, the Philadelphia Flyers or Vancouver Canucks.
Norris will someday give Ottawa a smart, two-way presence up the middle but remains an NCAA product at the moment. Balcers is already 21 and would hardly rank as an A-grade prospect. Regardless, they’re worth surrendering for a Sharks team clearly contending in the present. They’re entering their last-ditch years in the Wilson era. Thornton is 39, Pavelski 34, Burns 33, Marc-Edouard Vlasic 31, Couture 28, Martin Jones 28, Kane 27 – and Karlsson 28. There’s a reason the Sharks pursued John Tavares so hard in free agency. They understand that, as a team two years removed from a Stanley Cup final berth, their hourglass is low on sand. So even if Karlsson ends up a rental, he’s worth the acquiring cost.
And Tierney, while a useful middle-six center, is 24 and has topped out at 17 goals and 40 points. The Sharks were always incredibly deep up the middle during his tenure with them, so he’ll receive opportunities in Ottawa that he never got in San Jose, but he’s not going to become a front-line player at this point in his career. DeMelo, while establishing himself as a legit NHL pro, wasn’t sniffing the Sharks’ top pair as a long-term option, and Karlsson’s right shot replaces his, so the team doesn’t feel DeMelo’s loss at all.
The Nashville Predators are cheat-code good because they play their top four defensemen, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban, more than 50 minutes a night, meaning opponents have to take more than 80 percent of their shifts against truly elite, Norris Trophy-caliber blueliners. Now the Sharks have two-time Norris winner Karlsson joining Norris winner Burns plus shutdown wizard Vlasic on their blueline. Both being right-handed shots, Burns and Karlsson will likely play on separate pairs, meaning opponents will spend about 50 minutes a night against the two greatest offensive defensemen of the past quarter century, who make big defensive impacts as well simply by driving the possession game so strongly. It’s tough to say how Burns and Karlsson will share power play time, but that’s a good problem for coach Pete DeBoer to sort out.
The Pacific Division looked like the NHL’s toughest to predict this summer. The Calgary Flames made significant roster changes after a playoff miss, the Anaheim Ducks and L.A. Kings exited the playoffs with whimpers and were getting long in the tooth, while some team between Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks would eventually tap into its youth potential and rise. The Vegas Golden Knights faced the pressure to repeat the most unlikely expansion-team season in major pro sports history. The Sharks, with a virtually unchanged roster and strong if declining veteran group, looked like the one predictable piece of the Pacific, not a real threat to challenge for the Cup but a safe bet to play competitive hockey at or near the top of their division. But the Karlsson acquisition changes that. It no stretch to call this team the class of the Pacific and a fringe championship threat now. The Sharks already had their foot on the gas pedal with the Stanley Cup window starting to close, but now they’ve decided to empty the tank. Good on ’em.