The Erik Karlsson Dilemma

TORONTO (July 9) — This is a purely hypothetical exercise, for it appears — and to their detriment — that the Toronto Maple Leafs are not involved in trade talks with the Ottawa Senators for Erik Karlsson.

Nowhere else on the planet would the Leafs find the component missing the longest, and most acutely, from their arsenal. But, all indications are that general manager Kyle Dubas will not toy with his roster — undeniably gifted with the recent addition of John Tavares, but also lacking balance between forward and defense. Ideally, in my view, Dubas would avail himself of every opportunity to improve the Leafs from a position of strength. The notion I’ve had is to dangle William Nylander in front of Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion and see what happens. Aside from salary–cap gymnastics (and we’ll get into that), I’m not certain Dorion can be offered a more–skilled alternative. But, again, it seems to be Tampa Bay in the East; Dallas, Vegas or San Jose out west. Certainly, wherever Karlsson lands, that team will rocket northward in Stanley Cup chatter.

To obtain the “temperature” of this subject among Leaf supporters (and, likely, to my detriment), I put it out there on Twitter earlier today. “Wouldn’t Erik Karlsson look good in Toronto blue and white?” Aside from the anticipated allotment of deep, learned replies (such as “no”), the general consensus (and, not surprisingly) was a wide reluctance to unload Nylander. Leaf fans, and they’re surely not alone, have forever over–valued local players; in this case, justifiably. Nylander is a wonderful skater and puck–handler, with a quick, deceptive shot. I suggested in this corner last year that the Leafs try him on the blue line. His skill–set, alone, could shore up the club’s interminable deficit. As it pertains to a trade with Ottawa, how else might the Leafs acquire a player of Karlsson’s ability? Offer Josh Leivo? Connor Carrick? Obviously, there has to be something equitable in a trade proposal. If only Dubas felt the urgency to get involved. Which, apparently, he doesn’t.

“It [wouldn’t be] worth it for one year of Karlsson. No,” offered @MattHarnum05 on Twitter.

“Even if it led to the end of the Cup drought?” I responded.

“That’s a big ‘if’. I wouldn’t be comfortable sacrificing Nylander.”

“A big ‘if’ with Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Kadri and Karlsson? How could the Leafs ever ice a better line-up?”

“The Leafs would certainly have the best team on paper, however we both know nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs and the No. 1 seed rarely wins. Stay the course.”

(Coincidentally, as I write this, Leafs Nation Network is showing the end of Game 6 in the 1967 Stanley Cup final, when Toronto beat Montreal, 3–1, to capture its most–recent championship. As per below):

@MattHarnum05’s sentiment was echoed by @RogerWnek:

“Not worth it even to end the [51–year] drought. Look at how Chicago has been losing key, quality players since winning a Cup. Granted they have [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook, but, in my opinion, the guy that would have been worth luring to Toronto was Drew Doughty.”

This comment was rather intriguing. Again, a Leafs fan said that winning the Stanley Cup next spring with a loaded roster wouldn’t be worth exchanging Nylander for Karlsson. Which sort of blows the mind. He also mentioned Chicago winning “a Cup” rather than three, in six years, between 2010 and 2015. By admitting that “granted” the Blackhawks had a pair of elite blue–liners, he was (perhaps unknowingly) agreeing with my contention that the Maple Leafs won’t raise the Cup until acquiring at least one–such player. And, I couldn’t help but wonder if the opposite had occurred — Karlsson being extended by Ottawa; Doughty being available for trade by Los Angeles — that @RogerWnek would have said “the guy worth luring was Karlsson.”

Twitter follower @kieranhughes26 chose to “educate” me:

“You don’t get it @Berger_BYTES. Karlsson would be awesome for the Leafs. But, not for Nylander. The Leafs trade Nylander to Ottawa and the [Senators] control him for a long time. Karlsson walks away from Toronto July 1, 2019. Not worth it. Also, Dubas said the young core stays.”

I stopped short of thanking @kieranhughes26 for the bulletin on free agency. But, he did raise an important point. Would Karlsson be worth one season of service for the long–term future of Nylander… even if Bodog went kookier than today and suggested the Maple Leafs were “heavily–favored” to win the Cup next spring? My answer is absolutely, unequivocally, positively “yes”. Other blue–line options could be available next summer, and how happily would Leaf zealots entertain them after a championship parade? Those rejecting a one–Cup scenario must be fairly certain the Maple Leafs can win multiple titles by retaining Nylander, along with Matthews and Marner. But, again, we’re talking about a team that hasn’t been to The Dance in 51 years. Besides, according to @kieranhughes26, whatever Kyle Dubas says is gospel. So, why bother?


Then there was this comment from @longtimeleafan about trading Nylander:

“It has to be for a home run: Karlsson; [P.K.] Subban. Otherwise the Tavares [signing] is all for naught.”

Which, precisely, is my point. Though I’m not sure I’d place Subban at the same level as Karlsson, the Leafs must somehow obtain a Norris Trophy paradigm in order to augment and maximize the value of shelling out $11 million in salary and cap space for Tavares. Remember, Johnny T. will be 28 by the time the puck drops on Opening Night for the Maple Leafs: Oct. 3, vs. Montreal, at Scotiabank Arena (which still sounds weird). According to the physio experts, he is already encroaching the down side of peak years in the NHL. It’s likely Tavares will not be quite as efficient at age 30 or 31, when he approaches the halfway mark of his seven–year, $77 million contract. Championship windows do not open widely. Sometimes, there is only a sliver of opportunity for a team to accentuate its resources. That opportunity, for the Maple Leafs, could be right now, with Tavares, Frederik Andersen (29 this season) and Patrick Marleau (39 this season) in the fold.

As for acquiring Karlsson, @insuremetodayca came up with this ditty:

“No. Not for what it would cost. Karlsson is a powerplay specialist… you can’t pay a guy based on [one] huge playoff performance [for Ottawa in 2017]. I am not for abandoning the Shanaplan. Wait for [Tim] Liljegren.”

Given that Karlsson was minus–25 last season on a lousy Senators team, he is suddenly a “powerplay specialist”. Sure. All defensemen incapable of thriving at even–strength twice earn the Norris Trophy. The year Los Angeles won its first Stanley Cup (2012) Doughty was a minus–2. Karlsson won his second Norris in 2015 at merely plus–7. When you play 30 minutes a game, stuff happens. Good and bad. Besides, what’s the matter with being deadly on the powerplay? Any blue–liner that puts up 62 points in a “bad” year is good enough for me. Reducing Karlsson to “one huge playoff performance” was simply absurd. And, yeah, let’s wait for Liljegren. Or, Rasmus Sandin. So, Tavares can come out with a walker and drop the first puck.

But, again, does it matter? The Leafs, by all appearances, are going to continue neglecting the blue line and try to win the Stanley Cup by playing a 100–foot game. Perhaps it can work. Even if it hasn’t. For decades.


17 comments on “The Erik Karlsson Dilemma

  1. There’s a rumour flying around that the leafs have offered Sparks, some odds & ends and a draft pick for Karlsson as a rental. Ottawa will have to move Karlsson as it gives them a better chance end up with a higher draft pick. Not sure if rumor is true or if true will come to fruition but if Dubas can pull it off they will have to build him a statue outside the arena.

  2. Karlsson is very intriguing indeed.

    I don’t disagree that it’s worth acquiring him with the cost being Nylander (and perhaps more) if that ‘won the Leafs the Cup’ (thank you again Gord). A cup is a cup, let alone waiting 51 years, and even if he’s a Leaf for only 1 year.

    Think of the excitement as this new season approached? Pure magic.

    I’m trying to picture Karlsson playing in Toronto and I couldn’t help drawing up memories of Thomas Kaberle. How would you compare them? How much better is Karlsson than TK?

    Scarred Leafs fan since 1968…

  3. Hi Howard. I ask you. Do we know that Dubas hasn’t inquired about Karlsson? I’m sure he has. It’s his job to. Is EK going to return to 100% from the ankle? I don’t know. I say stay away from EK. Hypothetically if we were somehow to acquire and sign EK and it didn’t work out, all we would here is that we gave up too many pieces for someone that was breaking down physically. We know it has 51 years. This is full of red flags.

  4. Babcock did indeed call Rielly a 2. Although that was 2 years ago I believe. At the time Rielly was receiving no power play time and being force fed defensive matchups. Babcocks stayed goal was to develop him into a top pairing guy. I believe he’s succeeded. I acknowledge that he isn’t at Karlsson, Hedman or Doughty level but I’m a firm believer he’s right there with Carlson.

    As for what they would have to give up for Parayko I have no idea. Thank God that’s a job for Kyle Dubas to figure out. I would not be adverse to moving Gardener for a top pairing RH shot to balance out the top pair. I think a Rielly-Parayko, Dermott-Hainsey top four would be favourably comparable to Caps defensive unit. That still leaves Zaitsev-Rosen/Borgman/Carrik as the bottom pairing which is serviceable. Is this doable? I have no idea but then I’m not getting paid the big bucks to figure it out either.

    1. I like Rielly, but no one can honestly place him at the same level as Hedman, Doughty, Karlsson, Keith (in his prime), Chara (in his prime), etc. There’s a large distinction, in my view, between a “good No. 2” and a real blue line stud.

      1. Howard, you are a gambler for sure. If we were getting Norris trophy Erik it would be a no-brainer. If he we are getting 2018 -25 player who has lost a step and then retires because of his ankle it would just be another bad trade or possibly the worst trade ever the Leafs have made. Imagine Sens win the Cup in 5 years with Nylander winning the Conn Smythe.

  5. Wow .. I’m honestly surprised at the push back. I would have probably opted for Karlsson via trade over Tavares if it were me and I had my choice of the two (assuming JVR would resign). I can’t help but think that the leafs unloaded 2 top-6 forwards, both in the very good category, and picked up on top-6 forward of the elite category. Probably not a wash, but not as big an upgrade as folks might think.

    The club is in need of a solid dependable blue liner that kills penalties and can handle the tough minutes late in games against the top forwards. I agree that Karlsson is very intriguing. I too fail to see why Dubas doesn’t see the urgency in this, especially if one of the options is Tampa Bay. That would be UGLY.

    I used to play poker a lot and on occasion, you would call in a folding situation purely for meta-game reasons. I.e. if you allow an opponent to consider you weak in defending your blinds, they will pressure you all the time. This is different, but to me, it feels similar. Karlsson signing in Tampa Bay would be a nightmare. A defensive move would be prudent.

  6. I don’t think you can compare Karlsson who is known for his glaring errors on defesne and is -36 over his career with a Doughty +93, Hedman +65 or even Subban +45.

    Then on another level you have Lidstrom +450 over his career and a +163 at age 27 or Niedermayer +167 and +102 at 27.

    Considering the contract Karlsson will command and the fact that last season he was not the player he was in previous years due to major surgery on his ankle I would hate to lose a Nylander for what at this time is still really an unknown which could head south if Karlsson’s injury turns into a Peter Forsberg ankle injury.

    1. What you’ve pointed out, Bruce, is how much better defensemen fare on good teams (L.A., Detroit, T-Bay, New Jersey) rather than mostly average (Ottawa). Not as much a reflection on the individuals.

  7. I would argue the Leafs don’t need a number one Dman. They already have one in Morgan Rielly. A 24 year old who finished 15th in defensive scoring the past year. He will be entering his prime at the exact right moment for the Leafs. If, as you did we consider John Carlson a number one then Rielly can’t be far off the mark. I would argue the Leafs need to upgrade his partner though. With all due respect to Hainsey there is no way he should be playing on the top defensive pair.

    I would consider one year of Karlsson not enough for Nylander either. I would be looking for more of a Seth Jones type in a trade for someone of Nylanders talent level and contractual control. Someone who is extremely talented but also comes with more than 1 year. It’s not that I don’t think Karlsson wouldn’t be a huge help, he obviously would but for only one year that is a huge, huge gamble. Morgan took a huge step the last year and I would expect him to be even better this upcoming year. Find him a better partner (maybe a Colton Parayko), move Hainsey and Zaitsev down the lineup and I think the Leafs would be true contenders.

    1. Some valid points, Will. Must remind you, however, that no less than Mike Babcock famously called Morgan Rielly “a real good No. 2” defenseman. Which was brutally accurate. And, for whom would the Leafs acquire Colton Parayko?

  8. Howard,

    Here is the concern I have. Although I understand your point about a Norris type D man, I have watched the Leafs trade away draft picks and good young players for 38 years. It has worked a grand total of zero times, as you know. Hopefully the Leafs won’t be getting anymore top ten picks for quite some time due to them finishing high in the standings. Nothing upcoming to replenish these good young players. So I am not sure trading away a good young player once again, is the answer. I’m not saying it isn’t either, but I do believe you have to be very cautious. Also have to consider what else must go Ottawa’s way. You haven’t mentioned that at all. Nylander surely won’t be enough to get it done on his own.

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