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ASK ME ANYTHING: Predicting John Carlson’s landing spot

Will John Carlson leave the Capitals for a big UFA contract? Should the Rangers trade for Erik Karlsson? And more.

It’s a transitional time of year for hockey fans. Some are focused on the spectacular, unexpected Stanley Cup matchup, but the off-season’s most crucial dates approach quickly, so a lot of the questions this week concern the draft, trades and free agency. Let’s do the damn thing. Props if you understand that reference.

Ecb (@bce1801) asks…

Where do you rank Nicklas Backstrom in the history of Swedish forwards? And could he get enough points to pass Mats Sundin all-time? Thanks.

Fun question, ECB. First off, I typically consider myself a big Backstrom apologist. I believe he’s one of the best Swedish players, not just forwards, of all-time. He’s already 11th in points at 799 and ninth in assists at 590 among his NHL countrymen, and he’s fifth in points per game among qualified Swedish NHLers, too. He’s been excellent relative to his competition, ranking second in assists and fifth in points among all NHLers since he debuted in 2007-08. Backstrom, for me, should be mentioned in the same breath as Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin and Ryan Getzlaf when we’re talking about the best pure playmaking centers of this generation.

Backstrom has, of course, often (not always) had the luxury of playing with Alex Ovechkin on one wing, so Backstrom will never join the elite pantheon of Swedish forwards alongside, say, Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin, both of whom spent much of their careers elevating lesser players into stardom. Daniel Alfredsson probably ranks ahead of Backstrom in many people’s eyes right now, too. And Henrik and Daniel Sedin would for sure. Backstrom has no first- or second-team all-star selections and no major individual accolades in his career. Fair or not, he’s the Swedish center who played with quite possibly the greatest goal-scorer of all-time. Kent Nilsson was a dominant NHLer in a relatively small sample size, too, and Markus Naslund reached solo heights that Backstrom hasn’t. So I view Backstrom as a top-10 forward but not necessarily much higher.

That said, Backstrom is a darned good player in his own right, underrated in his physical strength and two-way ability and capable of impacting a game every night with or without Ovechkin. Backstrom’s skills are elite. If he plays long enough, there’s a decent chance he accumulates enough volume to finish second all-time in points among Swedish NHLers. Backstrom is quietly still just 30 years old and has been consistent and durable for most of his career. He averages 80 points per 82 games. Even if, say, he averages just 60 points for his next five seasons, that would get him to about 1,100 points by age 35. Backstrom has the smart, mature type of game that should keep him in the NHL longer than that if he wants to keep playing, too. I see him finishing his career with 1,200 or 1,300 points but not quite catching Sundin.

(An aside: I’ve spent a decent amount of time getting to know Backstrom, and he’s quietly one of the funnier players in the league. Teammates really like the guy. If you want to know more about him as a person, here’s a big interview I did with him in 2016, with apologies for the strange formatting.)

Long Sean Silvers (@seanms22) asks…

Do the Rangers realistically pursue Erik Karlsson via trade? If so, is it the right move for the rebuild? And what’s the cost?

This is a complicated question, as the buzz around the Rangers’ plans seems to pit contradictory theories against each other. On one hand, we have the ‘Rebuilding Rangers’ theory, to which I subscribe, especially given they’ve just hired a college coach in David Quinn. That’s not a guy you bring in for his ability to connect with veterans, right? It was the anti-Alain Vigneault hire. This team also tabled a letter to its fan base pledging increased devotion to young players and essentially announcing a rebuild. The Rangers, a team seemingly allergic to draft picks for so many years, have three first-round selections in 2018. They dealt away top defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who had a year left on his contract, plus J.T. Miller for Vlad Namestnikov, prospects Libor Hajek and Brett Howden, a 2018 first-rounder and a 2019 conditional second-rounder. That was a foundation-altering trade.

Karlsson, like McDonagh, is a No. 1 defenseman with a year left on his contract. Acquiring him would require sending the Ottawa Senators a package of picks and prospects – a superior pile of assets to what the Rangers just landed in the McDonagh deal. So wouldn’t a Karlsson trade be undoing the rebuild – and then some? The counter theory, the one supporting the Karlsson idea, is, “Just kidding, we’re still the Rangers, we still will stop at nothing to build a win-now team, and we just needed to regroup before pursuing the guy we really wanted.” Supporting that idea, of course, is the notion goalie Henrik Lundqvist (a) only has so many good years left, if any and (b) refuses to waive his no-movement clause and wants to remain a Ranger no matter what. Bringing in fellow Swede and mega-impact player Karlsson would constitute a “win it for Hank” strategy, and there are worse ideas out there, I suppose. Even if the Rangers wanted to tank, they have too many good players to do that. Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad remain up front. Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk patrol the blueline. Lundqvist can still steal the odd game. Young centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil almost made the team full-time last year and should do so this time around. So, OK, maybe the Rangers want to push forward since they aren’t bad enough to be really bad. Even after re-signing RFAs Skjei, Hayes, Ryan Spooner and Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers should have at least $10 million in cap space to play with.

Still, if I’m placing a bet, I say GM Jeff Gorton doesn’t do it. Think about what it cost to get Matt Duchene last year. Even with just a year left on his deal, Karlsson should command an astronomical package. Unless you know you can sign him right away to a massive extension, it would be enormously risky for a middling franchise like the Rangers to gut their cache of picks and prospects. What would it take? Andersson, Skjei and at least one first-rounder? To me, the better fits for a Karlsson trade are the powerhouse teams who are in pure win-now mode and have no reason to turn back. I’d love to see the Pittsburgh Penguins chase him, for example. They’ve emptied their farm system almost completely, so they may as well finish the job to get one year of Karlsson. Pedal to the metal until Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exit their primes.

So if I’m a Rangers fan, I’m excited by all the rebuild moves made in the past few months – and by the notion of picking three times in the first round this month. A Karlsson trade would be ‘Classic Rangers’ and undo what looks like an inspired shift in philosophy.

Johnny Grunas (@PJpremiere) asks…

What team will John Carlson play for next season?

I’ve been shocked to read and hear so many media folk suggesting Carlson is “done” as a Capital. I don’t buy it. Most of the time, the favorite to land a big-ticket UFA is that player’s original team. Think about it from a human perspective: “We’ll give you as much or almost as much money as everyone else, plus you don’t have to uproot your wife and children to move, plus you can sign with us for eight years instead of seven elsewhere, plus your current team is good enough to be playing in the Stanley Cup final.” Add up all those factors and the Capitals still look like the frontrunner to ink Carlson in my mind.

Will Carlson earn a monster cap hit north of $8 million? Looks like it. And do the Capitals appear squeezed by the cap, big time? Yes, I’ll concede that. But GM Brian MacLellan has pledged he’ll do everything to bring Carlson back, and owner Ted Leonsis is devoted to winning and willing to spend to the cap. Speaking of the cap, it’ll rise to somewhere between $78 and $82 million, meaning Washington’s cap space, currently listed as $8.4 million, grows to at least $11.4 million and as much as $15.4 million. Tom Wilson has earned himself a long-term extension as an RFA, but I could see the Caps trading RFA netminder Philipp Grubauer, and the Caps have no other high-priority free agents unless you count defensive specialist Jay Beagle, a UFA. It’s not as impossible to make room for Carlson as many people seem to think it is. My official pick to sign Carlson is in fact the Capitals.

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Some other teams out there make sense, sure. The Toronto Maple Leafs are commonly linked. They have the money to keep pace with any other suitor and truly have the need. No team aches for a high-impact, right-shot blueliner like Toronto does. But does Carlson want to play under the pressure of that market? Only certain breeds of players do. It’s not for everyone. The Vegas Golden Knights are a fun pick for Carlson. They’ll have the cap space, too, and anything is possible with them. Their GM, George McPhee, is also the man who drafted Carlson in 2008.

Two rising teams with a lot of cap space: Colorado and New Jersey. I’ll rule out Colorado, as the Avs have two monster prospects on defense in Cale Makar and Conor Timmins, not to mention Samuel Girard, who progressed nicely in his first season with the Avs. Their long-term outlook on defense is good with or without Carlson.

The Devils are an interesting fit. Financially, they’re set up better than any other team in the league to be major players in free agency. They’re my favorite landing spot for John Tavares and theoretically have room for Carlson should they want to go that route. But I spoke at length with GM Ray Shero about the philosophy of free agency just two weeks ago, and some of his musings made me wonder if he really wants to get aggressive after all. He said he doesn’t see free agency as the best way to build a team. More from Shero:

“Just speaking for myself, there’s a certain price you’ll pay. The cap could go up, and that could be very beneficial for some teams. It’s been a great thing for teams to remain competitive and be competitive, but at the same time, just because the cap goes up doesn’t mean everybody’s revenue has gone up and they’re going to spend that. Historically, is one player going to make that difference? I can think of one off the top of my head, one free agent signing that has really paid off (in the cap era), and that’s Zdeno Chara. How many others can you name?”

That sounds like a skeptic, not someone preparing to pursue the big fish. Unless, of course, Shero is playing coy and trying to throw us off the trail. He’s a smart man, so you never know.

Kurtis Twynstra (@nmstars31) asks…

Will the NHL change the expansion team process to prevent another ‘Vegas’ fiasco? If so, how?

Hey Kurtis. No, I don’t see the NHL changing the process. Its top decision makers have already indicated as much.

“The fact that (the Golden Knights) are in the Stanley Cup final was hard even to imagine at the start of the year,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly before Game 1 of the final, as reported by my colleague Ken Campbell. “The rules were well thought through, and you never can please everybody. There were concerns, but we ultimately decided they were the right mix. We feel like the next expansion team should have the benefit of the exact same rules. I wouldn’t say anybody expected the expansion draft rules would have created a Stanley Cup finalist.”

And why would the NHL want to change anything? This has been a remarkable success story for the league. It’s been a boon for merchandising and TV ratings. And if Seattle’s new fan base inherits an expectation of similar success, it would be good business for merchandise and ticket sales before that franchise even plays a game.

Where we might see a change, of course, is from rival GMs. They’ll peruse their rosters more carefully to ensure they don’t give away their William Karlssons. We’re also far less likely to see trades that bend over backwards to accommodate the new team in exchange for salary relief. Rival teams can now hold “look how good Vegas was” over the Seattle GM’s head. So I’d be surprised if we see teams desperate enough to dangle legit prospects such as Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch next time around. Those guys aren’t underdog stories. They were first-round picks, always projected to be good. So while the rules on paper should be just as favorable for Seattle as they were for Vegas, I expect tougher sledding for Seattle merely because GMs won’t want to repeat the mistakes they made when dealing with shrewd McPhee and the Golden Knights.

Ben Walling (@t–smagee313) asks…

If you are the Red Wings, which defenseman do you take between Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes and Noah Dobson?

I love this question, Ben, not because of its specific reference to the Red Wings but because it addresses a key question for the 2018 draft: who is the best defenseman in the exciting tier behind Rasmus Dahlin?

I’m biased, of course, but my colleague Ryan Kennedy is, for my money, the best, most connected draft expert out there. In his meticulously researched rankings, which appear in our current Draft Preview magazine, Boqvist is our No. 5 overall prospect (including forwards and goalies), Hughes is No. 6, Bouchard is No. 7 and Dobson is No. 9. It doesn’t get much closer than that.

Dobson is the best physical specimen of the group. Hughes and Boqvist are the small, modern-style, dynamic D-man types that get much more respect in current draft circles than in The Old NHL. Think Cale Makar and Ryan Ellis. Personally, I’m a huge Bouchard fan. He brings decent size, he’s probably the most mature D-man in this second tier, he’s really smart and he’s a great passer. I like that “Steady Eddie” quality to him.

That said, the Wings, for me, haven’t had a truly special power play quarterback since the heydays of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, so I wouldn’t mind seeing them go all-in on one of the flashier kids like Hughes or Boqvist. If we believe the franchise, in the era of scout Hakan Andersson, still has that slight preference for Swedish prospects, I’ll predict Boqvist is the guy they get, assuming he doesn’t go off the board at No. 5.

That said, as the Athletic’s Craig Custance reports, the Wings might not even pick sixth. They’re open to trading the selection, says GM Ken Holland, to move slightly down. The logic makes sense. Since the consensus top four players are the untouchable Dahlin followed by three wingers, we know the Wings aren’t motivated to move up given their areas or need are defense and center. And if they view Hughes, Boqvist, Bouchard and Dobson as roughly equal, they can slide down a few spots, net another asset and know they can still land one of those D-men.

I do predict the Wings walk away with a member of that four. A trade could happen. But my money’s on Boqvist wearing the Winged Wheel.