What to do with Erik Karlsson’s resurgent season

Is two weeks of amazing hockey worthy of shipping him out of town?

Erik Karlsson is off to a historic start. His 21 points in 16 games is the kind of pace that San Jose Sharks fans envisioned when he was acquired in 2018.

During the past four years, we’ve seen flashes of King Karl’s brilliance, but perhaps he has seen more time in the training room than the ice, racking up injury after injury. Karlsson has become a polarizing figure, and his $11.5 million price tag means he’ll often bear the brunt of the blame for why the Sharks have been basement dwellers since 2019.

The big question surrounding Karlsson now is what to do with him. His resurgence has come at a time when the team isn’t necessarily trying to be competitive. Many fans are already imagining selling high and getting out from under Karlsson’s contract before his inevitable next injury.

But is a trade feasible, let alone the smartest move? Or might it be better to see what Karlsson can do in a full season without sharing the load with Brent Burns?

Karlsson talks Cicek’s debut, Hall of Fame inductees & those trade rumors

The Clause

Any Erik Karlsson trade talk has to start with the fact that he has a full no-movement clause. He can nix any trade, so if he doesn’t agree to be moved, then Karlsson remains a Shark. Even if general manager Mike Grier works out trade for every draft pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs for the next 10 years, with no retained salary and Matthew Knies tossed in for good measure — Karlsson can say “pass” and the deal won’t happen. Karlsson holds all the cards in any potential transaction.

Prior to the start of the season, Karlsson made it pretty clear that he wants to stay in San Jose, and while Grier has put everyone save for Tomas Hertl on the trade block, it would likely take Karlsson asking for a trade to begin the process.

A recent example: Brent Burns had a three-team no-trade clause and worked with Grier on a trade to the Carolina Hurricanes this summer. Prior to the move, there were whispers that the 37-year-old defenseman might be looking to move for a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

The Numbers

If Karlsson does decide that this is the time to move on, it would be in service of finally winning a Stanley Cup. Here lies the problem for any trade: in the flat cap era, what team is going to be able to fit in Karlsson’s contract, not just this season, but through the 2026-27 season? Yes, the Sharks could eat some money for the next four-plus seasons, but hold that thought.

Here are the current Stanley Cup favorites via Draft Kings:

Now, go check out CapFriendly. I’ll be here waiting.

Notice that most of the league is pretty tapped out on cap space? Especially true for the teams in contention of winning the title. Now, teams can trade contracts back, and a player's salary will be lower at the trade deadline than it is today, though that again only works to squeeze Karlsson in for a playoff push this season and doesn’t address the future.

San Jose would have to take back contract(s) to make a trade work, but the issue comes in making the trade even. The New York Rangers could trade their entire third line of Chris Kreider ($6.5 million), Filip Chytil ($2.3 million) and Vitali Kravtsov ($875,000) and still have to find another nearly $2 million to fit Karlsson under the cap. Is Karlsson worth an entire third line? For the Sharks, maybe. For good teams? No.

What if the Sharks decided to eat cap space? If Karlsson accepts a trade, the team could retain up to 50 percent of his cap space for the duration of his contract. San Jose could potentially retain $5.75 million through the 2026-27 season to facilitate a Karlsson trade.

But the Sharks are still paying Martin Jones’s salary through the 2026-2027 season:

The team also retained 34 percent of Burns’ contract, leaving $2.72 million on the cap sheet through the 2024-25 season.

If San Jose retained Karlsson’s salary, they would be looking at over $11 million in dead cap space, including the Rudolfs Baclers buyout with an additional year remaining. The salary cap is expected to jump up to $86.5 million next season, but that’s still nearly 13 percent of the cap taken up by dead space.

Now what?

While moving on from Karlsson would help to free up cap space, his production would be severely missed. Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s career-high is 39 points in a season. In 2015-16. When the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s been awhile.

Matt Benning’s season high is 21 points. Karlsson has basically matched Benning’s career season in a month. Ryan Merkley (I still believe in the Merkley window) has yet to prove himself as an everyday NHL player, let alone a defender who can carry the offensive responsibilities of a blue line.

San Jose would then be in the market for a blueliner to provide offense from the point. John Klingberg signed a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks for $7 million. Quick math of $7 million for Offensive Defenseman of Your Choice + $5.75 million for Erik Karlsson’s cap hit = $12.75 million!

Yes, the Sharks could end up retaining less. Even at 30 percent retention, that’s nearly $3.5 million for the next four-plus seasons just to not have Erik Karlsson on the team. This Sharks team is already talent poor and in cap hell. Taking the best player off the team for marginal savings doesn’t seem an efficient way to manage the cap.

Karlsson is playing the best hockey that we’ve seen since his arrival in San Jose. Trading him now isn’t the answer. This team is going nowhere this season, but the massive hole Karlsson would leave along the blue line without a clear answer, not to mention the cap ramifications for the next several years, simply doesn’t make sense.

Anyway, Karlsson has a full no-movement clause, so until he says he wants to leave, it’s all a moot point. Sit back and enjoy his third Norris Trophy.