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Top five frontrunners to sign Erik Karlsson

Karlsson will be the NHL off-season's most coveted UFA. Which teams make the most sense for a Karlsson signing – from a hockey perspective and personal perspective?

The Stanley Cup final continues, but the 2019 UFA class is far too interesting to hide from the headlines for long. And with all due respect to the top UFA forward, Artemi Panarin, this is Erik Karlsson’s year.

Not only is he the best offensive defenseman of the past two decades, but the relatively low supply of quality blueliners on the open market this summer should drive his price to an astronomical level. It’s Karlsson, then the drop off goes to the Jake Gardiner/Tyler Myers/Alexander Edler tier, followed by…um…yeah. You get the idea. Karlsson lords of the rest of the blueliners available to sign this summer. The demand should create a frenzy not unlike what John Tavares generated last year – pitch meetings with Karlsson and agent Don Meehan wouldn’t be a surprise – which should offset any concerns about his health and keep Karlsson in Drew Doughty’s contract range. If Karlsson re-signs with the Sharks, that would mean eight years and $88 million. As a UFA, it would mean seven years and $77 million.

Rumors have exploded about Karlsson’s potential landing spots this week. Which destinations look like the favorites? What reasons do we have to trust or distrust the idea of him going to these places? Here are five frontrunners to land Karlsson.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

The story that sparked all the fresh Karlsson buzz came from the Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan, who mentions Karlsson’s wife, Melinda, spent the 2018-19 season feeling homesick, as she’s an Ottawa native. If Karlsson wanted the Ottawa experience without actually playing for the Senators again, Montreal would be the next-best thing as the closest team to Ottawa geographically. Carey Price remains the face of the Habs, but they’re a team without a superstar skater unless Jesperi Kotkaniemi develops into one someday. Karlsson would give them that coveted elite-player presence. According to the source in Brennan’s story, Karlsson hopes to receive competitive offers from two teams, one of which is Montreal.

Fly in the ointment: Excitement from Habs Nation over a Karlsson signing would be understandable, but is this team actually in the right stage of development to spend aggressively? The Canadiens were surprisingly competitive in 2018-19, finishing with 96 points and missing the playoffs by two points, but they did so with a veteran-laden blueline including Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn. They got an exciting showing from center Ryan Poehling when he arrived late in the season, and Nick Suzuki has tremendous potential, but the Habs arguably aren’t in possession of a can’t-miss prospect crop just yet. So they might have the wrong mix of veterans exiting their primes and youngsters not there yet. They need to add a bit more youth. Karlsson might be a better fit for a team ready to rise to true contender status.

NEW YORK RANGERS

The Rangers have been linked to every major UFA since the beginning of time, even though, under GM Jeff Gorton’s masterful rebuild, opening the wallet no longer feels like the team’s identity. Karlsson’s cosmopolitan vibe would jive well with Manhattan, a la Henrik Lundqvist, who happens to be a close friend of Karlsson’s. So is the Rangers’ first-line center, former Senator Mika Zibanejad. Geographically, New York is at least significantly closer to Ottawa than any Western market is. The Rangers drafted some promising young blueliners in Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller last year in the first round, and Karlsson would be as good a mentor as any, especially for countryman Lundkvist.

Fly in the ointment: The last time the Rangers emptied the piggy bank for “the best right-shot UFA defenseman on the market,” they got Kevin Shattenkirk, and that contract feels like a cautionary tale about paying a player for what he’s done instead of what he’s going to do. That’s the pitfall of signing UFAs to long-term contracts in their late 20s. Might the Shattenkirk situation make Gorton gun-shy about Karlsson, even though Karlsson is better than Shattenkirk ever was? Also, the Rangers’ rebuild is going swimmingly, with a top-two pick in the 2019 draft set to join a growing harvest that also includes forwards Lias Andersson, Vitaly Kravtsov and Filip Chytil. Might the Rangers be better off staying the course and coming into their own as a young team for now?

OTTAWA SENATORS

The Karlsson family could keep it real simple and just come home. If they decide comfort and off-ice happiness matter most – which would be a perfectly human thing to do, like Tavares did last summer – perhaps they return to Ottawa, the Sens stitch the ‘C’ back onto Karlsson’s No. 65 jersey, and the trade to San Jose feels like a bad dream. He’d likely finish his career in Ottawa if he signed there. According to the Brennan story, Ottawa is the other team from which Karlsson hopes to receive a competitive offer.

Fly in the ointment: Two words: Eugene Melnyk. It’s no secret Karlsson’s relationship with ownership frayed by the end of his tenure in Ottawa. Re-signing would require repairing any rift. The Senators, like the Rangers, have also gone all-in on their rebuild, having traded Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel this season. Even though it’ll sting to watch Colorado use Ottawa’s first-round pick in June, the Sens have nonetheless build a staggeringly good group of prospects, including Erik Brannstrom, Vitaly Abramov, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Logan Brown and Alex Formenton, poised to join the young NHL core of Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Colin White. Karlsson could be the mentor for that group, sure, but, again, it’s debatable if the timing is right. The Sens aren’t necessarily done their bottoming-out phase.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

Something I say every year: people tend to underrate ‘Current Team’ as a legitimate suitor for most hyped UFAs. Many interpreted Karlsson’s social media post thanking the Sharks and San Jose as a farewell, and it could be, but it also indicated how much he enjoyed his time with the team. The Sharks were competitive enough to reach the Western Conference final and might have gone further had injuries not claimed Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl at the worst possible moment. When you play in San Jose, you know you have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year. The Sharks have gone to the playoffs 14 times in the past 15 seasons. General manager Doug Wilson is committed to putting a winner on the ice.

Fly in the ointment: Will the Sharks be as good next year? They don’t have the cap space to re-sign every UFA, so Karlsson signing would nudge out one or more players from the group of Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Gustav Nyquist. Also, staying out west would not solve the “homesick” problem.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

If we’re talking pure video-game deals, looking for the most exciting fit on paper, it’s tough to top Tampa. Karlsson could form a devastating pair with his buddy Victor Hedman. The idea of a 62-win team adding Karlsson is enough to make any pure hockey fan giddy just picturing what the power play could do. The Lightning also have three veteran defensemen going UFA and thus really need reinforcements.

Fly in the ointment: Cap. Space. The Lightning are so jammed that, on paper, they’ll be challenged just to re-sign RFA Brayden Point, who has a case for at least an $8-million AAV (more in another market, but Florida has those tax breaks, remember). So they’d have to deal multiple players away just to clear space for a Karlsson push. Unlikely.

The Watch List

Buffalo Sabres: Imagine Karlsson as a Rasmus Dahlin mentor. Would also give Sabres freedom to put Rasmus Ristolainen on trade block as has often been rumored.

Colorado Avalanche: Have the cap space but may have the next Karlsson already in Cale Makar. If Avs spend big, makes more sense to use money on forwards.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Have the hockey-based need and close enough location for Karlsson family, but Leafs could only dream of having the cap space for Karlsson.

Vegas Golden Knights: We know they’ve been after him before. He could reunite with old teammate Mark Stone. But still very far from home for Karlsson family.

Vancouver Canucks: They’ve been linked to many big names already this off-season. Seems GM Jim Benning feels he has critical mass of youngsters and can begin adding veterans around them.

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