Trade grades: Penguins ace Karlsson deal, Sharks’ light return disappoints

Trade grades: Penguins ace Karlsson deal, Sharks' light return disappoints

Finally, the reigning Norris Trophy winner is on the move.

The Pittsburgh Penguins reeled in star defenseman Erik Karlsson in a three-team megadeal Sunday to enliven a dull part of the hockey calendar. The trade also advances the San Jose Sharks’ rebuild and has the potential to shake up next season’s Eastern Conference playoff race.

The transaction loops in the Montreal Canadiens and breaks down as follows:

PIT gets: Karlsson, forward Rem Pitlick, prospect forward Dillon Hamaliuk, SJ’s 2026 third-round draft pick

SJ gets: Forwards Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman, defenseman Jan Rutta, PIT’s 2024 first-rounder (top-10 protected)

MTL gets: Defenseman Jeff Petry, goalie Casey DeSmith, prospect forward Nathan Legare, PIT’s 2025 second-rounder

San Jose retains $1.5 million of Karlsson’s $11.5-million cap hit over the next four seasons. Pittsburgh will foot 25% – or close to $1.6 million – of Petry’s $6.25-million AAV for two more years. Montreal retains no salary.

Let’s evaluate this blockbuster from all sides.

Penguins

Kavin Mistry / NHL / Getty Images

Karlsson, 33, hasn’t reached the postseason since the Sharks surged as far as the third round in 2019. Two years earlier, he dragged the Ottawa Senators within an overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final while nursing two heel fractures, exhibiting his toughness and greatness.

He’s this move’s biggest winner. Karlsson departs a cellar-dweller to join the team that eliminated those 2017 Senators en route to clinching Sidney Crosby’s third Cup. Pittsburgh remains committed to Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang despite failing to win a playoff round for the last five years.

With the franchise legends staying put, new boss Kyle Dubas had to swing big to try to prolong the contention window. Dubas’ first seismic move as president of hockey operations and general manager delivered an incandescent talent who made NHL history last season.

Karlsson’s 101 points shattered his previous career best and were the most a blue-liner has produced since 1992. He was the first NHL defenseman to clear the century mark in his 30s, signaling he’ll age gracefully if blessed with good health. Karlsson tallied one fewer point at even strength (74) in 2022-23 than runaway scoring champion Connor McDavid.

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Acquiring Karlsson relieves the pressure on Letang, who turned 36 in April, to carry the Penguins’ defense corps. Head coach Mike Sullivan can ice a puck-mover on the right side of the first and second pairings and at the helm of both power-play units. Karlsson will raise Pittsburgh’s offensive floor even if Letang misses games or Jake Guentzel is hampered by the aftereffects of ankle surgery.

Dumping Granlund’s bloated contract ($5 million through 2025) is a triumph for Dubas. Moving Rutta and Smith made Karlsson affordable while also saving the Penguins about $3.1 million in cap space, per CapFriendly. If Pittsburgh bounces back into the playoff picture – maybe by vaulting the New York Rangers and Islanders to rise to third place in the stacked Metropolitan Division – that’ll soften the blow of parting with multiple picks.

Crosby, set to celebrate his 36th birthday Monday, is signed for two more seasons. The Penguins have about that much time to compete in the Metro before he, Malkin, and Letang finally fade. If things proceed to go south, Karlsson could net Pittsburgh a passable trade return or, at worst, would disappear from the cap sheet before long.

Resisting for as long as possible what’s eventually bound to happen – the post-Crosby teardown – makes sense for Dubas. He landed the Norris winner and conserved money in the process. Karlsson might never advance in the playoffs again, but his and Pittsburgh’s odds just improved substantially.

Grade: A

Sharks

Joe Sargent / NHL / Getty Images

Karlsson appeared in all 82 games and skated for 25:37 nightly last season. That means he was on the ice for close to 45% of San Jose’s campaign. The Sharks plummeted in the standings anyway, recording 60 points to drop to fourth-last in the league while posting the franchise’s worst points percentage (.366) since 1996.

Next season promises to be miserable. That’s for the best. Drafting future stars is what makes a rebuild tolerable. Jettisoning Karlsson positions the Sharks to tank and add a cornerstone who’ll play with Will Smith and William Eklund, headliners of GM Mike Grier’s ascendant yet unspectacular prospect pool.

The problem with the Karlsson deal is the pool didn’t improve Sunday. Grier obtained one decent asset – Pittsburgh’s 2024 first-rounder – while committing to pay Granlund and Rutta for two seasons. The Sharks assumed that burden, as well as the final year of Hoffman’s contract, to avoid retaining more than 13% of Karlsson’s AAV.

Karlsson’s age and steep price tag conspired to lighten the return. To land him in 2018, San Jose sent Ottawa two budding star centers: Josh Norris and the draft pick that became Tim Stutzle. Between the Karlsson, Timo Meier, and Brent Burns trade packages, Grier procured two Round 1 selections, using the first in June to draft winger Quentin Musty at 26th overall.

The Sharks’ cap sheet remains messy. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who’s 36 years old, is signed for $7 million annually through 2026. Captain Logan Couture, 34, owns an $8-million cap hit through 2027. Tomas Hertl is only 29 but commands more than $8.1 million per year through 2030 on a pact that predates Grier’s hiring.

More trades await. The returns for those players, if and when they’re moved, will probably underwhelm. Grier didn’t get a ton back for the one guy who made his squad watchable.

Grade: D+

Canadiens

Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Montreal swapped a depth NHLer in Pitlick and a one-dimensional scorer on the decline in Hoffman to bring in Petry at a reduced cap hit and DeSmith to back up Jake Allen in net. GM Kent Hughes also added a second-round pick without sacrificing draft capital or retaining part of Karlsson’s salary.

Petry was a pillar of Montreal’s North Division championship team in 2021. Dealt to Pittsburgh a year ago for Mike Matheson, he’s 35 but spry enough to play with Matheson on a temporary top pair. Hughes could trade Petry again this summer or at next year’s deadline. If he sticks around, his presence will buy time for young defensemen Kaiden Guhle, Justin Barron, and Arber Xhekaj – plus top prospects David Reinbacher and Lane Hutson – to make strides.

The cost to butt into the Karlsson trade was minimal. Even if Samuel Montembeault outplays Allen and DeSmith in training camp, making one netminder redundant, Hughes strengthened the Habs by getting involved. That warrants a solid grade.

Grade: B+

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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