It appears Erik Karlsson trade talks between the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lighting have cooled but it wasn't just days ago the Lightning were considered the clear favorites to land the star defenseman and a trade was all but done pending an NHL trade call. A deal between the two teams would have ended weeks of people asking the question, "where will Karlsson end up?" all while ensuring the Lightning would move one step closer to the Stanley Cup and the Senators one step closer to a rebuild. On paper, that kind of move made sense for both teams.
With Karlsson in the fold, the Lightning would run a top defense pairing of Victor Hedman and Karlsson with blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman backing them up. That's a scary top four and potentially the most dangerous in the NHL. So too, landing Karlsson in trade would be a shot back at the Toronto Maple Leafs who were able to snag John Tavares in free agency and essentially bump the Lightning down a peg as Eastern Conference favorites; not something Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was probably a fan of.
So, on the surface, trading for Erik Karlsson makes a ton of sense. But, when you look at things more closely, is it really that good an idea? There are some concerns that come along with adding a player of Erik Karlsson's talents and price tag. This is a move, if completed, should come with a buyer beware sticker.
The True Cost of Erik Karlsson
What team wouldn't want Erik Karlsson? It almost seems silly even to question the idea of Tampa not wanting to land him. And, we're not for a second suggesting that Tampa adding Karlsson wouldn't make them immediate favorites to win the Stanley Cup, but, what happens if we play devil's advocate?
Acquiring Karlsson in a trade won't be cheap. At a minimum, the Senators are going to want a high-end prospect, a first-round draft pick and more if the Lightning are able to extend the elite defensemen on a long-term contract. And make no mistake, giving up a ton of assets for a non-extended Karlsson isn't a great idea. To do this, there's no way the Lighting won't take pieces from an already dominating roster to get the Senators something they want. Would it take Mikhail Sergachev and more? That's a big ask and the suggestion that all the Lightning will have to do is move Ryan Callahan to a third team is absurd. It won't be nearly that easy.
Some might argue Karlsson will sign with Tampa upon free agency next summer so it's not as big a concern for the Lightning to extend him now but one can never underestimate the lure of free agency. Even if the odds of Karlsson staying put are 80% in favor of the Lightning, there's still a chance he'll leave.
Extending Him Means Saying Goodbye
Let's say Karlsson extends with the Lightning now. Let's say he extends with them next summer. Whatever the path, if Karlsson signs long-term with the franchise that path will include saying goodbye to certain roster members of a current Lightning team that is already a contender.
Tampa has the fifth highest cap in the NHL. With Nikita Kucherov recently re-signed, things get even trickier. Who will Tampa have to sacrifice to keep Karlsson in the fold, Anton Stralman? If so, there goes your top-four. Maybe they move a forward like Tyler Johnson or JT Miller; both would be losses.
In reality, most, if not all the names we throw out there offer less value to the franchise than Karlsson brings but disruption of team chemistry is a real thing and removing someone could affect the others. What Tampa needs to be wary of is affecting the minutes of certain players, having to remove key pieces from the lineup or, worse yet, taking a risk they can't continue to afford players like Steven Stamkos, Kucherov or Sergachev should they manage to hang onto him. An undesirable trade out of necessity is a real possibility for Tampa if they misjudge their salary cap flexibility.
Lost in a lot of this conversation is Karlsson's health; he's not 100 percent. Of course, a 90 percent Karlsson is better than most defensemen at their absolute best but what if this injury gets worse? What if Karlsson drops down to 80 percent, even 70? How valuable is he then?
For most teams, this might not seem like a huge deal because even at half capacity Karlsson is pretty good but when you consider what you'll be paying to keep him, how long and, in Tampa's case, what you'll be giving up to make room, there's a risk here.
The only way this trade makes sense is if the Lightning feel like they're in win-now mode. If the franchise is thinking they can't keep all their contracts regardless of the moves they make, perhaps the idea is to stack the deck for this year and sacrifice the long-term future. That might not be wise but there is a chance that's the mindset of the organization.
Karlsson is the best option in the short-term, but for Tampa, he just might not be the best option down the road.
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