TORONTO (Feb. 11) — Let’s begin by consigning this blog to fantasy. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the reluctance of the current Maple Leafs management to venture beyond its comfort zone. The most–likely scenario, moving forward, is the same scenario as today: the Leafs will probably lose a hard–fought opening playoff series to Tampa Bay… or perhaps squeak past the Lightning and get throttled by the Bruins. Either way, it will be sufficient for the club to award general manager Kyle Dubas a three–year contract extension. Whereupon Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan will stay the course by signing, in the next two years, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander to long–tern pacts worth nearly $40 million. The Leafs will continue to look pretty in the regular season and underachieve in the Stanley Cup tournament. In other words, rinse and repeat.
Also a factor is that mammoth trades routinely occur in the National Basketball Association, but almost never in the National Hockey League. Perhaps as the result of pampered, overpaid NBA players that lack character becoming disgruntled with their current teams. Or maybe, as with Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors, that NBA executives have bigger balls (Ujiri famously traded for small forward Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, in 2019, became the first Canadian team to win the basketball championship). Whatever the reason, the NHL bores by comparison.
So, this idea will look good only on paper… and only in the eyes of Maple Leaf fans that refuse to swallow whatever the team offers up for public consumption. Which is a growing faction, but still rather minute.
Were I the GM of the Leafs, I’d be spending every waking hour trying to wrangle Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks. Though getting up in age at 32, Karlsson is healthy and enjoying his most–productive NHL season (70 points in 53 games). Barring injury or unanticipated decline, he will win the Norris Trophy for the third time in his Hall–of–Fame–worthy career. And who, after the playoffs last spring, would have considered anyone but Cale Makar to dominate the top defenseman award? An equitable deal for Karlsson would necessitate the Leafs trading Marner to the Sharks. Money in, money out suggests no other way. It would rank among the most–difficult swaps in franchise history, but many would agree it’s time for a hard Toronto swing after six consecutive failures in the first round of the playoffs. Marner is a superb talent — unlike anyone on the Leafs roster — but hasn’t yet shown that he can maintain, or elevate, performance in the post season. Karlsson, by comparison, singlehandedly carried the 2016–17 Ottawa Senators to within one victory of the Stanley Cup final. He is precisely, and exquisitely, the component the Leafs have most lacked since the late Borje Salming was in his prime, nearly 45 years ago.
Clearly, the stumbling block (more like a boulder) with any team acquiring Karlsson is a full no–movement clause and guaranteed $11.5 million against the salary cap for the next four seasons. Though not out of the question, it’s a stretch to envision Karlsson maintaining his current level of performance into his 37th year. As such, the Maple Leafs would have to negotiate a restructuring of his contract. In exchange for joining a team with Stanley Cup possibilities (unlike the Sharks), Karlsson would agree to the potential of a trade or buyout after 2024–25, putting the Leafs on the hook for his current pact in only the next two seasons. There is much more likelihood of Karlsson remaining elite toward age 35, providing he stays healthy. This type of deal would balance out the Toronto roster and provide the Maple Leafs an improved chance of vying for the Stanley Cup during Matthews’ prime years.
With the salary cap expected to continue rising — and with a number of current Leafs coming off the books — the club would be able to retain Karlsson, Matthews and Nylander. Providing, arguably, the best three–man nucleus in the NHL; the skill–equivalent of the Patrick Kane–Jonathan Toews–Duncan Keith era in Chicago or the Anze Kopitar–Jeff Carter–Drew Doughty threesome that won the Stanley Cup for Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014.
Undoubtedly, the naysayers will look at Karlsson’s seasons, since 2017–18, of minus–25 (with Ottawa), 15, 18 and 14 (with San Jose). I would rather look at his minus–3 figure this season with the 28th–place club in the overall NHL standings. The plus–minus statistic is virtually always a reflection of a team’s performance. Justin Holl is a plus–12 with the far–superior Maple Leafs. Which defenseman would you rather have: Holl or Karlsson?
From San Jose’s perspective, the Sharks would acquire a younger player (Marner is 25) who will spectacularly fill the void for right–wing Timo Meier, a 35–goal shooter largely favored to be dealt before the Mar. 3 NHL deadline.
I should probably stop now.
This blog is making far too much sense for the NHL; particularly for the Maple Leafs, who know they can continue indefinitely along the path of least resistance. With no economic fallout or decline in interest and devotion.
So, back to our fantasy world…