Okay, so that rumored Erik Karlsson trade to Tampa hasn’t happened yet.
At least, that’s the case right now, as I write this early on Monday afternoon. I am quite sure that my writing these words will ensure the trade happens as soon as I send this to my editors. If so, much of what I’m about to say could be rendered moot because of who may or may not be moved in the trade, from the players to potential third-party teams involved.
But suffice it to say that Tampa is unlikely to move someone who is an actual difference-maker in this potential swap. They have the good fortune, if you want to call it that, of having given out some bad deals in recent years that could, if necessary, be included to make the money work. Your Dan Girardis, Ryan Callahans, Braydon Coburns, and maybe even Tyler Johnsons — who’s good but arguably not worth $5 million AAV — could be swapped out.
There are, of course, way too many no-trade and no-move clauses for Steve Yzerman to navigate here (Tampa has 10 rostered players with at least some sort of protection, which is an insane amount, including all four of the guys I just mentioned), but that’s where the third team probably comes in.
Add in the fact that one assumes the trade will almost certainly include a good young roster player (Mikhail Sergachev, most likely) and you can see where Ottawa may be set up to add talent and actual dollars against the cap without hurting Tampa’s ability to remain a top team in the league.
However, the question quickly becomes how long that status lasts.
A lot of the guys Tampa has signed for 2019-20, when any new contract for Karlsson would kick in, are already quite expensive, and that’s before you figure in the fact that some guys likely wouldn’t be coming back. This is a team that needs to not only re-sign Karlsson if this trade goes through, but also Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point the same summer, with room left over to extend Andrei Vasilevskiy at some point before 2020-21 (the same offseason the Callahan contract expires).
Tampa is, obviously, a well-run organization, but they’re not that far away from the cap ceiling right now and might be able to avoid taking on too much money in a Karlsson trade. However, they only have 11 guys signed for 2019-20 and those people already cost $56.3 million against the cap. That’s before extensions for Karlsson, Kucherov, and Point, all of whom will likely be looking for big raises.
This is all well-known, and if it means they can’t bring 32-year-old Anton Stralman back next summer, well, 29-year-old Karlsson seems like a pretty good upgrade, if an expensive one.
I’m more concerned about this year, however, because the extent to which a Tampa team with Karlsson, Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Palat, Miller, (maybe) Johnson, Hedman, McDonagh, Stralman, and Vasilevskiy could run roughshod over the league almost can’t be overstated.
Assuming everyone is able to stay healthy, the fact that you could put either Hedman or Karlsson on the ice for, what, 52 minutes of any given game is going to give you a massive competitive advantage. Recall, if you will, the extent to which the Anaheim Ducks dominated the NHL when they had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in 2006-07. Those are two all-time elite defensemen, both of whom were into their early 30s, and played 27 minutes a night, each closer than should be comfortable to being point-a-game from the blue line (Pronger at .89 points a night in 66 games, Niedermayer .87 in 79).
That Ducks team had a good offense, too, but most of those we think of as being big players for the franchise were really only coming into their own. Ryan Getlaf and Corey Perry “only” combined for 103 points. It was 94-point Teemu Selanne, at 36, who drove the offense alongside these two elite defensemen.
Meanwhile, the 2018-19 Lightning are coming off having scored the most goals in the league last season (296, with the next-closest 19 goals back of that number, and the highest number since 2008-09). They also allowed the 13th-fewest in the league.
Adding a multiple-Norris-winning defenseman who has repeatedly scored at a 70-plus-point pace in his career to that mix is absurd. They were plus-60 last year without the best defenseman alive. It’s entirely conceivable that the Bolts would post a plus-80 goal difference depending upon who gets swapped out. Only three teams since 2007-08 have done that. All three won the Presidents’ Trophy, though none of them won the Stanley Cup.
Again, adding a guy who could cost you $11 million or more against the cap is going to make it a tight squeeze for a team that already has two players making at least $7.875 million AAV. It’s hard to justify having three defensemen alone making more than $25 million. But when the defensemen are this good (i.e. if Ryan McDonagh is your No. 3) that sets you up nicely to be a dominant team for at least a few more years regardless of who else you have to shed along the way to make all the money work.
Think of the power play. Think of the 5-on-5 offense. Think of all the highlight-reel goals. Think of how little scoring they would allow at the other end. It might require a “parental discretion advised” warning coming out of every commercial break.
Even the very best teams in the league aren’t guaranteed a Cup, of course. All those elite goal-difference clubs played a combined 34 playoff games. But it’s fair to say that if Karlsson does indeed end up in Tampa, we’ve never seen a collection of talent this good on a single club. Somehow, having Anton Stralman be your fourth-best defenseman is an unbelievable accomplishment.
It might only be for a year, but adding Karlsson would make the Lightning appointment viewing for all 82 games and the entirety of their playoff run. It’s difficult to imagine just how good, and fun, they’d be.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.