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Erik Karlsson Had To Go

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JUNE 25: Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks speaks with the media at the 2023 NHL Awards player availability at the Bridgestone Arena on June 25, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Erik Karlsson has been freed from his West Coast hell, but we're not sure yet whether he can find new (metaphorical) beachfront property in Pittsburgh. He is expensive, but it's not our money. But he is also along in years, and we all share the concept of time.

Karlsson was at points the most dynamic defenseman in the NHL, and if you trust awards, one of those points was last season, which ended in a Norris Trophy. But unlike the two other times he won that, this time he was mostly playing for his next job because the San Jose Sharks were getting nowhere with him, and with $46 million left on his eight-year, $92 million contract, nowhere was getting more expensive and less rewarding. He knew it, they knew it, everyone knew it, so when the Sharks completed their three-way body dump with the Penguins (who get Karlsson) and Montreal Canadiens (who provided the grease to make the trade work), he got the benefit of going to a team that isn't three years away from being three years away. Because Karlsson's own body is only three years away from retirement, the Sharks cut bait so that Kyle Dubas might have one more chance to eat.

Dubas is the new general manager of the Penguins after years of frustrating the easily annoyed Maple Leafs diaspora, and this is in some ways his attempt at reputational atonement. He took the Penguins job knowing that Sidney Crosby, three years older than Karlsson, may not have even three years left. This is his 20th year on the job, he has his name on the Stanley Cup three times, and his Hall of Fame plaque is backdated to 2004, when he was 18 and the logical inheritor of the line that runs backward from Mario Lemieux to Wayne Gretzky to Gordie Howe to the earth's cooling.

In short, this was a present to Crosby and to a lesser extent Evgeni Malkin, who is entering his 18th year in the gig—a pledge from Dubas that whatever long-term plans he might have for the Flightless Seabirds will be placed on hold for the duration of Crosby's and Malkin's careers. It's nice to be respected that much by a new boss when the custom is for the new boss to clean and fumigate the place before filling out the benefits form. 

As for Karlsson, he has his own level of impatience, having wasted most of his time in San Jose with injuries (two to his groin in 2019 alone), and then a series of roster miscalculations that turned the once-proud Fin into the third-worst team in the league ahead of only Anaheim and Detroit. None of the instapundits paid to evaluate trades within six hours like this deal for San Jose (which got post-30 forwards Mikael Granlund, and Mike Hoffman, post-30 defenseman Jan Rutta, plus Pittsburgh's first-round pick this coming spring), but the Sharks have been trying for three years to figure out how to tear down a dead-ended team, and Karlsson was believed to be the truest and most lingering stumbling block.

This, then, was San Jose's final act of surrender after going for it all for a decade. Karlsson’s arrival was the last big move in a series of them by former general manager Doug Wilson that began with Joe Thornton in 2006 and went through medium-to-big splashes on a nearly yearly basis for premade reputations like Bill Guerin, Jeremy Roenick, Rob Blake, Dany Heatley, Antti Niemi, Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Paul Martin, Joel Ward and finally Evander Kane. They never missed the playoffs and made only one Cup Final, and lost to prime Crosby. Now they are Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl away from being an expansion team.

So Karlsson gets what he wants, a chance to play for the Cup after years of disappointment in Ottawa and San Jose. Crosby gets one more old head on a roster packed with them. Montreal gets cap space and draft picks. And San Jose finally gets to acknowledge what was painfully obvious five years ago, that the window propped open with quick fixes eventually collapses. They were a Cup contender for more years than most teams get, but those days ended before COVID. That's how long they've needed to move on from the good old days.

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