Saturday, June 15, 2024

Does an Erik Karlsson reunion in Ottawa make sense for the Penguins and Senators?

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It has been a rather humiliating decline since the spring of 2017.

And a drop that has been punctuated by several seismic events.

A change in ownership.

An awkward divorce from Matt Murray.

A massive Erik Karlsson trade.

And a polarizing general manager who was finally shown the door in 2023.

That’s a perfect description for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s also the exact same story arc for the Ottawa Senators.

Since meeting in the 2017 Eastern Conference final, both teams have fallen off a cliff. The Senators immediately plunged to the bottom of the standings by undertaking an aggressive rebuild. The Penguins’ decline has been more gradual, but they are now in danger of missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in the salary cap era. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series in six years.

The fan bases for both franchises are growing tired and impatient. But maybe there is a mutual solution that can reinvigorate both franchises.

The idea of trading Karlsson from Pittsburgh to Ottawa was first floated by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman a couple of weeks ago. As Friedman wrote, “I can’t help but wonder if the Senators consider a Karlsson reunion. At least, brainstorm it. Yes, it’s complicated and yes, everyone would have to be on board.”

The rumors even reached the ears of Karlsson himself a few days ago, when he was asked directly about the idea of him returning to Ottawa.

“That’s Canada for you. I played there for a long time so I kind of know how that game works,” Karlsson told reporters late last week in Pittsburgh. “They’ve got a lot of things to talk about every day because they’ve got a lot of air time. But very few things to actually discuss. They like to make up these what-if scenarios. That’s just the way it is, and it’s not something that I really look into or worry too much about.”

So this week, The Athletic’s Penguins writer Josh Yohe and Senators writer Ian Mendes dive in to explore the idea of a blockbuster trade involving the teams.

Would the Penguins consider moving on from Karlsson?

I do believe the Penguins would consider moving on from Karlsson. It’s not that they don’t recognize his genius on the ice and they assuredly do not regret last summer’s trade with San Jose. Far from it. They removed considerable dead weight from their lineup and made their roster better. It just hasn’t worked.

The fact of the matter is, the Penguins have too many players in their 30s who are making millions of dollars. While Karlsson remains a great player and is hardly what ails the Penguins, he’s probably not who they really need right now. To remove themselves from his considerable salary is something, I suspect, that Kyle Dubas would be open to discussing.


There is no reason to believe that the Penguins view Erik Karlsson as untouchable in the same way Sidney Crosby is. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

In Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have two aging stars who also possess no-movement clauses. Sidney Crosby has one year left on his deal but the Penguins are very much invested in him being their captain until the day he hangs up his skates. If Karlsson were willing to return to Ottawa and if the Senators would like to bring him back, I feel confident that Dubas would listen. There is no reason to believe that Karlsson is untouchable and, as great as he still is, he has been largely underwhelming this season. He has two goals in his past 46 games. It could be argued that such a move would be in everyone’s best interests. — Yohe

Would it make sense for Ottawa to acquire Karlsson?

Let’s start with establishing a few things we know to be true.

Karlsson really enjoys living in the city of Ottawa. He spends his summers there. His wife is from there. Convincing him to waive his no-movement clause to return to Ottawa shouldn’t be viewed as a major obstacle.

Karlsson has enormous respect for Daniel Alfredsson. The Senators assistant coach remains a strong mentor for Karlsson to this day and Alfredsson’s heavy involvement with the Senators would certainly be enticing for the defenseman.


Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson — pictured here in 2010 — still have a strong relationship today. (Jana Chytilova / Freestyle Photography / Getty Images)

The Senators desperately need a right-shot defenseman to play inside their top four.

So simply looking at the above statements, there is some merit to at least having a conversation about Karlsson if you’re the Senators. This is a brand new ownership and hockey operations department in Ottawa, so whatever friction or awkwardness there might have been between Karlsson and the previous regime is no longer a factor. He could easily be welcomed back with open arms.

The biggest question is what version of Karlsson would the Senators be acquiring? While he’s only one year removed from a 101-point, Norris Trophy campaign with San Jose in 2022-23, as Josh points out, Karlsson has been far less potent in his debut season with the Penguins. He turns 34 this spring, so the Senators should be mindful they’re not acquiring the same dynamic defenseman who almost singlehandedly dragged his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017.

Karlsson would be joining an Ottawa blue line that is now clearly controlled by Jake Sanderson. And presumably, at least one of either Thomas Chabot or Jakob Chychrun would be in the mix on the Senators’ back end. That’s a lot of pressure taken off Karlsson and would parachute him into a scenario where he’s No. 2 or even No. 3 on the depth chart.

But the Senators need to ask themselves an important question: What kind of profile are they looking for in a right-shot defenseman?

If they are looking for a solid, stay-at-home defender who can provide leadership, Chris Tanev’s name is sure to surface in the free-agent market. The same goes for younger defensemen like Brett Pesce and Dylan DeMelo, who can inject a calming, defensive-minded presence into the Senators’ blue line. These three are all available as unrestricted free agents this summer and would not cost Ottawa anything off its current roster to acquire. So if Ottawa believes its right-shot defenseman fits that profile of a player, it’s probably not worth pursuing Karlsson.

But if Ottawa’s new management would like to pair Sanderson with an offensive-minded defenseman, then kicking the tires on Karlsson is a worthwhile endeavor. In that scenario, the Senators could realistically roll into next season with a top four consisting of:

Sanderson — Karlsson

Chychrun or Chabot — Zub

If the Senators pursue Karlsson, it would almost certainly mean they need to make the decision to trade one of Chabot or Chychrun. Whoever stays behind would likely be placed with Artem Zub to provide a solid second pairing.  — Mendes

What’s a realistic return for the Penguins in such a trade?

I don’t know that the Penguins would require some kind of massive haul.

The goal for the Penguins — and this is something Dubas has stated publicly — is to get younger, and to do so as quickly as possible. So, the Penguins wouldn’t want any veterans in such a deal. A good prospect? Sure. A high draft pick? You bet. Maybe one of each. The fact of the matter is, that San Jose didn’t get as much for Karlsson as many believed would be the case. It’s been a buyer’s market, and that’s certainly what we saw during the recent NHL trade deadline period.

It wouldn’t badly impact Ottawa’s prospect pool or draft pick situation to get Karlsson. But that said, players like him, pricey as he may be, still require some sort of payment. — Yohe

Could Ottawa even afford Karlsson?

Let’s start with Karlsson’s contract. He has three more seasons that come with a $10 million cap hit. (San Jose is eating $1.5 million of his salary for each season in that window). According to CapFriendly, the Senators have roughly $12 million in available cap space for next season. They still need to sign Shane Pinto to a new contract that will eat a chunk of that money. Presumably, they’d like to replace Vladimir Tarasenko’s role in the top nine. And if they want to bring Erik Brannstrom back into the fold, he will require a new contract. Sprinkle in a new deal for a role player like Parker Kelly and suddenly that $12 million could evaporate in a hurry.

The Senators will finally have some breathing room in which to maneuver under the salary cap next season, but it’s not a ton of space. And that’s before the club decides to bring in someone with a $10 million cap hit like Karlsson. They would need Pittsburgh to eat a sizeable chunk of his salary. And even then, it would be a tight squeeze. This type of move would require the Senators to part ways with either Chabot or Chychrun in order to make room for Karlsson. But if Josh says the Penguins are looking for prospects and draft picks, this might be a hard deal to engineer.

The Senators currently have the 31st-ranked prospect pool according to our Scott Wheeler. They also have to forfeit a first-round pick by 2026 for the Evgenii Dadonov trade debacle. That coupled with a weak pipeline means the Senators don’t really have a lot of flexibility to offer a high pick or a prospect for Karlsson.

If Ottawa could figure out a way to get Pittsburgh to retain a good portion of his salary, maybe this can work. But the more salary Pittsburgh eats, the higher the asking price becomes in return. And given Ottawa’s weak prospect system, this isn’t necessarily a good match. This type of trade is going to require a lot of flexibility and creativity if it’s going to be done in a way that satisfies both parties.

And if the Senators decide they want a more defensive-minded defenseman, they should be able to target one on the free-agent market who won’t require them to give up any assets. — Mendes

(Top photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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