It’s a move that’s been talked about for weeks and months and now Kyle Dubas has gotten it over the finish line. Erik Karlsson is a Pittsburgh Penguin.
It is an absolutely massive transaction that saw the Penguins clear out four roster players (Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and Casey DeSmith) to make the salary cap work. The Pens also gave up next year’s first round pick and a future second rounder but at least recouped a third rounder in 2026.
All of those important ramifications and details aside, the biggest and most important piece of the puzzle is Karlsson. A unique and spectacularly talented player, he will join a Pittsburgh club that failed to make the playoffs last year and needed some sort of boost to reverse what’s been a team on the gradual decline in recent seasons.
Karlsson should provide just that by adding a new level of dynamic offensive play to the Penguins. In 2022-23, he became the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to score 100 points. His skating ability with the puck is unmatched. In the zone, his playmaking and ability to score is something very, very special.
Defensively, he’s more of a lightning rod and mixed bag of results, though San Jose at 5v5 was even with Karlsson last year (and -53 without him, as noted by Adam Gretz). Karlsson isn’t known or going to help the defense, but his contributions at what he’s good with should be the focus, because it is what matters the most.
Erik Karlsson, traded to PIT, is an elite offensive defenceman coming off one of the greatest offensive seasons we've ever seen from a blueliner. Amazing passer, excellent shot. Also an extremely poor defender who sacrifices a lot to make that offence happen. #LetsGoPens pic.twitter.com/XbShgRF1tk— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 6, 2023
It’s an early birthday present for Sidney Crosby to add the type of weapon that Karlsson is in the offensive zone. The skill that he possesses to generate chances by the boatload is something that everyone who follows the NHL is familiar with since Karlsson has been doing it for a long time, but will be even more evident for Penguin fans to see it up close and in action starting this fall. As can be seen in the percentages below, this is a special, special player with the puck on his stick.
Here's Karlsson's stat card from his Norris-winning 2022-23 season. pic.twitter.com/cSg4AScUlZ— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 6, 2023
Having recently turned 33, Karlsson has fought back after a mid-career lull to regain his form as one of the top defensemen of this generation. He’ll join the Pens with a ton of confidence and momentum coming off such a great individual campaign last year.
His recent decline, while very real, has now been completely reversed and he's playing as well now as he ever has in his career. pic.twitter.com/oFc4py5ujC— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) August 6, 2023
Karlsson won the Norris trophy as the league’s top defenseman this past season in 2022-23 following his historic year. He also claimed the award in 2011-12 and 2014-15 when he was with the Ottawa Senators.
It will be interesting to see if his passing ability can help some of the notorious poor finishing the Penguins have suffered in recent seasons. Top line forwards are likely to receive a ton of quality setups and potentially some easy tap-ins and finishes from what Karlsson regularly creates.
Erik Karlsson (traded to Pittsburgh for an as-yet unknown return) is an exceptionally strong driver of offence, a wizard at making sure that offence becomes goals; gives a little of it back defensively. pic.twitter.com/54HGae5j8n— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) August 6, 2023
In addition to the good work of reversing a lot of the managerial mis-fires of the recent past, the impact of a player like Karlsson on the Pens’ blueline should turbo-charge a talented group of skilled forwards. This addition primes the core to give them the best chance in the late Crosby days to have the firepower to work back towards the playoffs.
With apologies to the additions of Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves this off-season, acquiring Karlsson is the type of sweeping, landmark impact move that Kyle Dubas was seeking and ended up accomplishing to make a massive mark and issue a big change to the Penguins in his first off-season with the team.