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Erik Karlsson is eager to get to work with the Penguins

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins have been where Erik Karlsson is trying to go. Sometimes at Karlsson's expense.

The superstar defenseman was sitting on the bench when Chris Kunitz's knuckler found its way back into the back of the Ottawa net in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals.

The Penguins spilled onto the PPG Paints Arena ice bathed in joy on their way to capturing the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup.

Six years later, Pittsburgh believes its championship window remains open. Six years later, Karlsson is still waiting for the chance to hold the Cup over his head in triumph.

So while Karlsson insists he didn't have a “preferred destination” as the rebuilding San Jose Sharks explored trade opportunities for the dynamic defenseman, something about joining the Penguins seemed right.

Pittsburgh's roster is littered with veterans eyeing one last push. Maybe two. Karlsson knows he has more hockey behind him than in front of him.

No wonder the smile on the 33-year-old seven-time All-Star's face was so wide when he was introduced on Wednesday, three days after the Penguins acquired him in a blockbuster three-team deal. He's finally caught the team he's spent much of his career chasing.

“The players that they’ve had here for a long time are still really good players,” Karlsson said. “I’m really excited to step into that group and learn a lot of things and also at the same time, hopefully bring some new things and help them become even better.”

Pittsburgh is banking on it. The Penguins haven't won a playoff series in five years and failed to reach the postseason this spring for the first time since 2006. First-year general manager/president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas has spent his first few months on the job retooling the roster around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Karlsson is his biggest catch.

Playing with a joy he admits had been missing in recent years, Karlsson posted career highs in goals (25) and points (101) points on his way to his third Norris Trophy.

“I just feel like I’m in a really good spot in my life right now,” Karlsson said. “I had a lot of fun playing hockey last year and coming to the rink every day, even though it wasn’t under the easiest of circumstances and we didn’t win very many games.”

Last season also marked the first he played in San Jose without Brent Burns, who was traded in the summer of 2022. Karlsson downplayed the idea he and Burns' relationship became “strained” during their four seasons together with the Sharks.

“We’re actually pretty good friends personally," Karlsson said. "I just think that when you don’t do well as a team collectively, things don’t tend to work out for anyone. And it didn’t for a long time. It’s just unfortunate that it played out that way.”

Karlsson now finds himself on the roster with another smooth-skating, offensive-minded defenseman in Letang. Both players like to have the puck on their stick. Both are capable of logging massive amounts of minutes. Both can capably quarterback the power play.

Letang signed off on Karlsson's acquisition, telling Dubas “whatever’s going to make us better and help us win.”

Karlsson certainly gives Pittsburgh more firepower. And he's not concerned about any potential conflict with Letang over who does what.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is win hockey games and win a (Stanley) Cup,” Karlsson said. "If we’re all pulling the same rope, I don’t think it’ll matter how it all plays out.”

Karlsson and Ryan Graves - signed to a six-year deal in July - are part of a reconfigured blue line that Pittsburgh hopes will help it return to the kind of north-south speed game that helped the club win consecutive titles in 2016 and 2017. Coach Mike Sullivan won't have to tell Karlsson twice to get the puck and get it up the ice. It's something Karlsson does as well as anyone in the game.

“I like playing with the puck," he said. "That’s how we started off playing the game and that’s how I’m hoping I get to play the game for the rest of my career.”

A career that Karlsson insists has a lot of juice left even as he enters his 15th season. He averaged 25:37 of ice time while playing all 82 games last season. Sullivan will likely tinker with finding a partner for Karlsson when training camp opens in September, with Graves or Marcus Pettersson the obvious candidates.

Those things can be figured out later. For now, Karlsson is simply happy that a process that ate up most of the summer is over. No more trying to read the tea leaves to figure out where he'll be playing this winter.

"I’m happy that it worked out at the end.”