Erik Karlsson spent the weekend in Tampa for the All-Star game and seemed to enjoy himself so much that he has Lightning fans wondering if he might end up here via a trade.
The Ottawa Senators, where he currently plays, are a famously mismanaged club whose front office has taken the brilliant step of engaging in public disagreements with one of the best five players in the world eighteen months from his unrestricted free agency. This has led to some speculation in the media that the Sens might consider trading him ahead of this season’s deadline. The Sens, in further evidence of their genius, didn’t shut down that speculation.
A quick survey of the league shows that if Karlsson is available, which seems unlikely, only a few teams have the assets to go get a player of his caliber. The cost would be multiple high-end prospects, multiple high draft picks, and possibly more. Most teams can’t put together a package like that.
One of the teams that can is the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts have a well-stocked prospect pipeline and all of their high-round picks in future drafts. Combine that with the team being in the heart of their cup window with a weakness on the blue line and you have the recipe for conjecture about how Karlsson would look in blue.
But this is where things start to get complicated, and where I go from fanning myself looking at that Instagram post to standing fully clothed in a cold shower thinking about whether Andrej Sustr should get a contract offer this summer.
Karlsson has the rest of this year and all of next year left on his contract. After that, he’s an unrestricted free agent. He has already stated that he expects to get his full value on his next contract. That’s likely to be something like an eight year contract at ten million dollars per year. While the Lightning could certainly afford him for the next eighteen months, signing him to that type of extension seems nearly impossible.
Bolts GM Steve Yzerman already has two major contracts to worry about next summer with both Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point being due for new deals. Kucherov will get a top-tier deal likely in the range of what Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman signed two summers ago. The question will be whether the team bridges Point like they have everyone else or if they change their approach and try secure a long term deal. Either way, they won’t have room left for Karlsson.
If we accept the above to be true, then any Lightning trade would be to rent Karlsson for a season and a half. As appealing as that might be, it seems impossible that the price the Lightning would be willing to pay for a rental would be more than teams who could also extend him long term. And if we’re thinking logically, this is where the dream of Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman pillaging opposing teams together full-time ends.
BUT! What if we don’t think logically!? Well, let’s really start spitballing. Let’s just imagine the Lightning can somehow clear the space to sign Karlsson. Maybe Yzerman Jedi mind tricks someone into taking Ryan Callahan’s contract. Maybe they trade Tyler Johnson or Alex Killorn. I’m not going to get specific because the actual scenario doesn’t matter much.
The trade cost to get Karlsson would be AT LEAST rookie defender Mikhail Sergachev plus multiple other assets. For kicks, let’s say the price is Sergachev, standout forward prospect Taylor Raddysh, and two draft picks including at least one first rounder. That gets the Lightning Erik Karlsson for the next ten years including an eight year deal starting in his age twenty-nine season.
This might be blasphemous...but...are we really sure we want that? How much better will Karlsson’s thirties be than Sergachev’s twenties? Will they be Raddysh plus two firsts better? And at nearly double the price over those ten seasons?
The strongest argument I can see for pursuing this path is that in the short term, the team’s chances of winning a cup would go up significantly. A trade like this would basically mean that the team is committing to winning a championship in the the next few years; but within five seasons, they’ll be feeling the effects of draining their prospect pool. It comes down to whether you would prefer that a team make a high-risk move to maximize the chance of success in the short term, or take a broader view hoping to sustain a slightly lower chance of success over a longer timeframe.
While I can understand both sides of this argument, I fall clearly on the side of staying on the path of drafting and developing to keep a constant flow of NHL talent coming through the organization. The temptation to cash in those chips for a potentially great short-term run is real, but I would prefer the front office to overcome that temptation and continue following the blueprint they’ve so meticulously designed over the last nearly seven years.
As fun as it was to flirt with a Swedish dreamboat for a weekend, I’d like to leave it at that. I don’t see any realistic way that the Lightning and Karlsson could have a long term future together. The most likely scenario is that Karlsson stays in Ottawa for the rest of his contract. If that doesn’t happen, the teams with the most incentive to trade for him will be those that can sign him long term. And the Lightning just aren’t one of those teams.
Sadly, we don’t have the booty that he’s looking for.