It has been nearly a week and I am still having a difficult time wrapping my head around the Erik Karlsson trade.
Not only the fact that Kyle Dubas and the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to pull it off and actually make Karlsson a Penguin, but how they pulled it off.
They not only acquired a future Hall of Famer and a three-time Norris Trophy winner, they did it by making one of the greatest “all of our bad players for your good player” trades in recent NHL memory. The only valuable assets the Penguins gave up were the two draft picks, and mostly the 2024 first-round pick. And even that pick is top-10 protected to give the Penguins some added protection in case things for some reason do not work out this year.
They dumped almost every problem contract still leftover from the Ron Hextall era and gave themselves a completely revamped defense. Their top-four now consists of Karlsson, Kris Letang, Ryan Graves and Marcus Pettersson, which is actually pretty damn impressive. Karlsson and Letang, even in their 30s, are still capable of playing big, impactful minutes and should create a situation where at least one of them is on the ice for 80 percent of the game on any given night. That completely changes the outlook of the defense and gives them serious puck-movement and offensive firepower at both even-strength and on the power play. And in Graves and Pettersson they each have a defensively responsible partner that also has the ability to keep pace and not hold everything back.
It is honestly A-plus work from Dubas. He cleared bad contracts and added a bonafide superstar.
It is also probably one of the most impactful and biggest trades in the history of the franchise and there are probably only a few deals that are even in the same ballpark.
I am talking about trades where the Penguins acquired an established star. Somebody that you knew right away was going to have a significant and meaningful impact on the team.
Karlsson is not just another star player. He is one of the best players of his era and on the short-list of all-time greats at his position. There are only nine defenseman in league history with three Norris Trophies, and the other eight are all already in the Hall of Fame. He was also a runner-up two other times and probably should have won at least one of those. Trading for a player with that sort of resume is always going to be a seismic shift for a team.
The Paul Coffey trade is the first one that comes to mind in terms of impact and excitement, and it remains — in my opinion — the most significant trade in Penguins history. I know there were some other trades that maybe turned out to be more impactful after the fact, but I am speaking strictly in terms of significance. Coffey was still in the absolute prime of his career, was the best defenseman in hockey at the time the Penguins acquired him, and gave a young Mario Lemieux his first true superstar teammate. The Coffey trade was the day everything changed for the Penguins and helped them start to become a championship organization.
That trade for me always remains at the top of the list.
The Ron Francis trade is in the discussion in terms of impact given that it helped produce two Stanley Cups and gave the Penguins another future Hall of Famer, but it was not seen as a slam dunk at the time it was made as there was some belief that the Penguins may have lost the deal at the time it was announced. Obviously history would tell a different story, and its impact remains legendary for the Penguins.
The Rick Tocchet trade is also in that same category in terms of lasting legacy and how it helped produce a championship.
In more recent years, the Marian Hossa trade is still significant even if he only played a couple of months with the Penguins. That trade, in my mind, was a smaller scale version of the Coffey trade in terms of what it meant to the team. That was the moment when it should have clicked in everybody’s heads that things were going to be different for the Penguins after the early 2000s rebuilding years when they were selling off everybody and everything that was not nailed down to the floor. Hossa was a superstar and his acquisition announced to the rest of the league that it was the Penguins’ time and that they were here to win. It officially opened the Stanley Cup window in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era.
Then there was the Phil Kessel trade that re-opened that window after it seemed like it had started to close. Between the 2009 Stanley Cup win and the time of Kessel’s acquisition, the Penguins had leveled off in terms of their playoff success, and with every postseason loss there was a question as to whether or not Crosby and Malkin would win another one. There was even talk that their careers had been disappointing to that point in terms of team success. And then Kessel showed up and changed everything and helped bring two more Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh.
I kind of look at the Karlsson trade as a similar type of move. I am not saying that it is going to result in back-to-back Stanley Cup wins, or even one Stanley Cup win, but it has the same type of feel where the Penguins are getting the exact sort of player they need, without having to give up anything of major value, and trying to re-open what is left of their championship window. It feels even bigger and more exciting in some ways simply because Karlsson is a better player.
Overall this trade is on the same sort of level as the ones mentioned here, providing the immense excitement and giving you the feeling that maybe you can still do something special as a team in the coming years. I know the circumstances are not exactly the same because Crosby, Malkin and Letang are older and at the tail end of their careers. But the feeling is still the same. There is excitement. There is hope. It makes you realize the front office is still all in and committed to trying to win.
So with all of that said, where do you rank this trade among the Penguins’ all-time biggest deals? Or do you need to see what sort of results it produces before you start getting into that discussion? I would still put it below the Coffey and Francis deals, but it is probably in my top-three or-four in terms of blockbuster additions.