How can the Penguins get the most out of Erik Karlsson?

The Penguins may have swung the move of the offseason with the Erik Karlsson trade, but how does the reigning Norris Trophy winner fit with their star trio?

The Penguins may have swung the move of the offseason with the Erik Karlsson trade, but how does the reigning Norris Trophy winner fit with their iconic star trio? (Getty Images)

New Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas conjured some magic with the Erik Karlsson trade.

Not only did he add the reigning (and three-time) Norris Trophy winner, but he also jettisoned a lot of Ron Hextall’s errors in the process. It’s the sort of move that may inspire debates about grading it an A versus an A+.

That said, it will take some luck, ingenuity and even some ego management for an A+ trade to produce A+ dividends on the ice.

Integrating Karlsson properly with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and especially Kris Letang may just make or break this landmark trade.

Injury history for Karlsson and other key Penguins

If there’s one unfortunate area where Erik Karlsson shares a lot in common with the Penguins’ core stars, it’s dealing with injuries.

Forgive a Penguins fan if they dream about simply inserting Karlsson’s career-high 25 goals and 101 points into Pittsburgh’s lineup like a bank transfer. With factors ranging from the aging curve to puck luck, it’s hard to imagine Karlsson maintaining that pace, even if he plays every game next season.

But last season was truly rare because all three of Karlsson, Crosby and Malkin played 82 games. Take a look at games played totals for the four Penguins since Karlsson joined the San Jose Sharks in 2018-19.






























Being that 33-year-old Karlsson is the youngest of the four (Crosby and Letang are 36, Malkin is 37), it’s fair to wonder how often they all will even be available for the Penguins.

Karlsson and Letang: potential benefits, drawbacks

Ideally, Karlsson and Letang will work together in harmony, easing their respective workloads while playing to their strengths. Logically enough, people view Karlsson as a potential game-breaker for the Penguins, someone who can propel their power play and make something out of nothing.

Looking back at Karlsson’s time with the Sharks, it’s worth arguing that the team didn’t always find the best ways to optimize both Karlsson and Brent Burns, two high-usage right-shot defensemen whose greatest strengths are on offense. You can describe Karlsson and Letang the same way (even if there are many obvious and subtle differences between Letang and Burns).

Will Letang slide into a different role on the top power play unit, possibly even using his right-handed shot in “Ovechkin’s office?” Could there be too many cooks in the kitchen, prompting the Penguins to have Letang and Karlsson running their own separate power play units?

There’s potential for awkwardness if the Penguins insist on Letang being the No. 1 defenseman, even if most come to a plausible viewpoint that, at this point in their careers, Karlsson is a better version of Letang.

Overall, you can file most of these questions under “good problems to have.” At minimum, it would be great for the Penguins to have one of Karlsson or Letang on the ice most of the minutes each night, ideally attached to a left-handed, defensively adept partner such as Marcus Pettersson or Ryan Graves.

They might even do all of that while making life easier for both veterans who ranked in the top-10 in ice time (Karlsson, fifth, at 25:37 minutes per night; Letang 10th at 24:51) last season.

Dubas already indicated that Letang’s saying the right things about Karlsson — namely, that he wants what gives the Penguins the best chance to win. However, it’s a situation to watch if it becomes clear that Karlsson gives the Penguins a lot more than Letang can, or if both blueliners are so leaky in the defensive end that the bad outweighs the good.

Can the Penguins manage the risk-reward ratio with Karlsson?

When people hyped up Karlsson’s (genuinely incredible) 101-point season, they often emphasized that he did it on a terrible Sharks team.

Such a point may gloss over how much the Sharks catered to Karlsson. As Jack Han notes, the team did a great job devising a system that played to Karlsson’s strengths while accounting for his defensive weaknesses.

To what extent will Penguins coach Mike Sullivan — not to mention proud star players such as Crosby — accept the inevitable mistakes that come when Karlsson “cheats” for offense? While Han logically argues that Crosby can cover for Karlsson (much like Tomas Hertl did) more than Malkin might, could Karlsson’s gambling tendencies come off as “selfish?”

Ultimately, the Penguins will likely need to experiment to get the most out of the addition of Karlsson. Managing the egos of Crosby, Letang and Malkin may end up being challenging, even if it’s all kept behind the scenes. There’s some risk of styles clashing, or Letang and Karlsson being double-edged swords of great offense and lax defense to a problematic degree.

It’s also quite possible that the Penguins won’t get that many times to run these experiments if one or more key players end up injured.

Yet, for all of the obstacles and variables, this experiment is very much worth running. Karlsson is the sort of elite talent the Penguins desperately need to try to squeeze out the most from the twilight years of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era.