After winning the Stanley Cup and returning largely the same roster for the upcoming campaign, the Capitals head into the NHL season as the team to beat…or at least they were going to be. The San Jose Sharks made a huge splash on the eve of training camp Thursday by trading for superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, thus giving San Jose one of the most formidable blue lines in the NHL.
San Jose missed on the John Tavares sweepstakes, but still managed to land a big-time player in Karlsson. In exchange, the Sharks shipped out Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers and two conditional picks to the Ottawa Senators.
The hapless Senators, meanwhile signalled the beginning of a rebuild by trading away their franchise player.
Karlsson has been one of the top defensemen and arguably one of the top players in the league over the course of his nine-year career and carried the Senators to within one goal of an Eastern Conference title in 2017 despite playing with two hairline fractures in his heel.
Karlsson now joins a blue line that already boasts Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic giving them three all-star caliber defensemen and instantly signalling that the Sharks are a true contender for the Cup.
What does this mean for the Caps? The trade makes the road to a second conference title a lot clearer by keeping Karlsson out of the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ottawa was going to be bad with or without Karlsson, but the Caps' biggest competition in the East appears to be the Lightning, a team that was favored to beat Washington in the conference final last season but fell in seven games.
Though still a talented roster, Tampa Bay will be without wizard GM Steve Yzerman who stepped down on Tuesday and remains only in an advisory role. To also miss out on Karlsson is a double blow to a team hoping to finally get over the hump and win its first Stanley Cup since 2004.
The Karlsson trade now gives the Western Conference four bonafide Cup contenders. In addition to the Sharks, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets were the two best teams in the league last season according to the standings. The Vegas Golden Knights, meanwhile, have committed to winning now and showing that last season's conference title was no fluke with the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.
Oh, and Connor McDavid, the best player in the NHL, is still lurking in the West as well.
Whoever emerges from the West to play for the Stanley Cup is going to be a formidable opponent, but a weary one. The road to get out of the West now looks like a far more difficult one than in the East which has the Caps, a Lightning team without its star GM and a Pittsburgh Penguins team that looks remarkably thin behind its superstars.
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