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Breaking down the Karlsson trade: The Sharks’ time is now

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To quote Travis Yost: “How does Wilson do this to everyone?”

Feb 10, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) lines up before a face-off against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Senators 6-3. Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday wasn’t a fever dream. Doug Wilson made a move and landed Erik Karlsson, giving the Sharks one of the deepest defense groups in the league.

If you followed along on Twitter yesterday, it was a wild ride that seemed to happen out of nowhere. Reportedly, the Golden Knights, Stars, and Sharks were all in talks with the Senators to acquire Karlsson. The Stars did not want to give up prospects Miro Heiskanen or Ty Dellandrea and talks stalled, leaving room for Doug Wilson to swoop in with an offer.

We won’t waste time singing Karlsson’s praises. He’s a two-time Norris winner who has out-scored all other defensemen since he joined the league in 2009. There is no defenseman who comes close to comparing to Karlsson. Instead, we’ll focus on all of the moving pieces used to get Karlsson to San Jose.

Roster players

One of the first bits of information on this trade to roll out was that there were “at least two roster players” from San Jose involved. Early reports seemed to believe that either Tomas Hertl or Timo Meier were involved — which would had made sense given that a generational defenseman was on the other half of this trade.

Ultimately, if one of those players had been involved, there would have been changes to the rest of the pieces involved. Maybe Ottawa would have taken fewer picks or settled for different prospects or roster players. We don’t know, but I think when looking at the highest-scoring defenseman of that last five years who is still very much in his prime, it’s hard to say I’d hate the trade if one of those players had to go to make it happen.

But this is Pierre Dorion we’re talking about.

The biggest downside in losing Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo is that the Sharks lose a lot of youth on their roster. While it’s not like Karlsson doesn’t have several more years of hockey in him, two roster players under 25-years-old swapped for a 28-year-old does make a relatively old team older. At the same time, the Sharks let go of a lot of veterans this off-season, unloading Eric Fehr, Paul Martin and Joel Ward. That 3C spot in particular is there for the taking for the young players in the Sharks’ system. The age factor could essentially be a wash, depending on who fills in where.

The most important thing is that the Sharks didn’t lose anyone who isn’t immediately or easily replaceable. Meier or Hertl would’ve been a much bigger blow to the forward group than Tierney. Despite calls to the contrary, Chris Tierney is a good third-line center but a better fourth-line center who is wildly going to be a second-line center in Ottawa.

Dylan DeMelo only saw his first real shot on the blueline last year. He’s a capable bottom-pairing defenseman, who will be tested with second-pairing minutes in Ottawa, who has a very grimly depleted blueline.

None of this is to discount the fact that both of these players have made strides toward improving their game every single year, nor is it a condemnation of their impact on the team in general, especially since both were very active in the San Jose community and were drafted and developed by the Sharks. But the Sharks didn’t lose a single roster player in this trade that they aren’t capable of replacing from within or via trade or even waivers. And somehow in exchange, they took the highest-scoring defenseman of the last near-decade.

Prospects

Even though Chris Tierney was the best and most experienced player acquired by Ottawa, the primary player Dorion was interested in was Josh Norris. His reasoning? He’s friends with Senators prospect Brady Tkachuk.

Whatever his motives, there’s no real way to sugarcoat it: Norris was the Sharks’ best forward prospect in terms of ceiling. To add to that, the Sharks also lost Rudolfs Balcers, who may have been their best forward prospect in terms of NHL-readiness.

The impact of losing Norris won’t be felt immediately, due to his NCAA path. There’s an additional layer to this piece of the package that Ottawa wanted so badly: Norris could finish out his degree at the University of Michigan and enter free agency without signing with the Senators. With the state of that organization, there’s certainly no pressure in his mind to jump on board right now. That’s a major gamble for the Senators to take when their most enticing draw is that a friend of Norris’ will also play for them.

The loss of Balcers, on the other hand, could be felt much sooner. Younger players will already be stepping in to fill those vacant roster spots. When a call up is needed, the Barracuda forward group isn’t looking to be in its best shape to supply.

In exchange, the Sharks received one prospect in 22-year-old winger Francis Perron, who put up 15 points in 44 games with the Belleville Senators last season. Maybe he’ll be able to have a bounce back year with a change of scenery. He’s still unlikely to have an impact in San Jose, though it does help keep from depleting their entire prospect pool in one fell swoop.

The Mike Hoffman Clause

There are potentially three picks going to Ottawa in this deal. The first is a conditional first-round pick that will be in 2019 if the Sharks miss the 2018-19 playoffs and 2020 should the Sharks make playoffs. They also receive a 2019 second round pick, conditional to whichever of the Sharks’ own pick or the pick acquired from the Florida Panthers in the Mike Hoffman trade is higher in draft order.

The Senators can get one more pick out of San Jose, depending on Karlsson’s future. If the Sharks sign Karlsson to a contract extension, the Senators will receive a second-round pick in 2021 that will upgrade to a first-round pick if the Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final this season. Alternatively, if Karlsson is on an Eastern Conference team roster this season, the Sharks will have to forfeit an additional first round pick no later than 2022 to the Senators.

The only guaranteed pick is the best of the Sharks’ 2019 second-round selections. The Sharks are nearly a lock to make playoffs, barring some wild unpredictable tragedy, so the first round pick should be the 2020 pick. But if by some chance they do miss playoffs, the Sharks don’t have the 2019 pick, as it belongs to the Buffalo Sabres as part of the Evander Kane trade.

Dorion, who notoriously doesn’t like to trade in-conference, included a condition to protect himself from the Mike Hoffman swindling that Doug Wilson pulled on him just a few months ago. It’s mostly unnecessary. Wilson said yesterday that he sees Karlsson as part of the Sharks’ future and wouldn’t give up the volume of assets he did if he didn’t think they could sign Karlsson long-term.

Best case scenario for the Senators is getting a second first-round pick, but it’s very likely they’ll at least get an additional second-round pick.

Win-now mode

With the Sharks-East winning the Stanley Cup (thanks Capitals), the pressure is on San Jose to finally get theirs. There’s no denying that Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski don’t have a huge window left. If the team doesn’t make the most of this next year, cap restraints could see one or both of them not returning to give it another go.

After making it to the Cup Final in 2016, the Sharks had a difficult year. The shortened summer thanks to the World Cup of Hockey and major injuries to crucial players saw a 2017 season that clearly wasn’t what they hoped it would be. The following draft started with Josh Norris, a perfectly respectable, but safe pick.

When Joe Thornton went down again in January of 2018, it was like a whole new Doug Wilson stepped up to the plate. He’d always been good at getting the better of other GMs, but this past year has been something entirely different. First, he acquired a top-6 winger in Evander Kane without losing major assets. He cleared out cap space by acquiring and flipping Mike Hoffman to load up on draft picks. Then he strolled into the NHL Entry Draft with his sights set on a difference-maker and he found one in top defensive prospect Ryan Merkley. He set aside free agency negotiations to woo John Tavares. And instead of settling for more spare parts when Tavares didn’t pan out, he waited.

When he could get the best forward available this summer, he took the best defenseman.

This trade fundamentally changes the tone of this Sharks team. It’s the kind of trade that calls to mind the feeling of getting James Reimer and knowing something big was about to happen — without the dread of Roman Polak and Nick Spaling attached. But it’s more than just a feeling — Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic saw the Sharks’ cup odds rise from 1-in-39 to 1-in-17 in his model with the addition of Karlsson.

The window won’t close until Doug Wilson says it will close.

Needs for the future

The Sharks’ prospect pipeline is drying up. On the heels of a Barracuda team that made it to the Calder Cup Western Conference final, Wilson stacked up on NCAA prospects and that timeline may hurt the Shark when they need players over the next two years or so. A team that is getting older can’t afford to lose much more youth than the Sharks already have in the last year.

That being said, the Sharks also have an incredible scouting team that has brought them plenty of undrafted and free agent gems (hello, Joonas Donskoi). If they continue to plug the holes as the Sharks rebuild their young ranks, they might be okay for the future.

But by all accounts, Wilson isn’t done. It’s reported that he’s looking to add a center, who could be the DeMarcus Cousins this team needs to prop that window open and fly right through it.

In the words of our new favorite player:

Karlsson still has visa issues to sort out, as he’s not Canadian or American and that complicates things, so he’s not expected to be at the first weekend of camp. We can’t wait to see him in teal, though.


Editorial Note: We will be continuing our Top 25 Under 25 series as ranked, even though two of the players remaining on our ranking have been traded. A version of this piece ran earlier with a mistake in who was sent to Ottawa. This has been corrected.