Erik Karlsson Bolsters Fearsome Blue Line in San Jose

 Ottawa continues to nosedive and San Jose now has two former Norris Trophy winners after the Erik Karlsson trade. What does it all mean? 
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Setting aside the Ottawa Senators’ spectacular nosedive from conference finalists into fire-selling reconstructionists, let us start with this basic, fearsome fact that crystallized Thursday afternoon: Two of the past five Norris Trophy winners now reside on the San Jose Sharks blue line, a unit soon capable of unleashing multiple world-class, right-shot defensemen—not to mention suitable Pirates of the Caribbean extras—for upwards of 50 total minutes every night.

What does it all mean? Nothing especially good for fellow Western Conference contenders, who must’ve exhaled as San Jose general manager Doug Wilson whiffed on other splashy offseason overtures (Ryan O’Reilly, John Tavares) before landing a future Hall of Famer on the eve of training camp. It was a steep cost in quantity: defenseman Dylan DeMelo, center Chris Tierney, prospects Rudolf Balcers and Josh Norris, a first-rounder, a second-rounder, and two conditional picks. As for quality? Well, the Sharks employ Erik Karlsson now. And the Senators do not.

Senators Trade Erik Karlsson to San Jose Sharks

The top-four defensemen patrolling around Nashville might object on the grounds of two-way hockey prowess, but how many other teams can claim the skill of San Jose’s back end? Certainly none possess more offensive firepower than San Jose now. Over five full seasons since the 2012–13 lockout, here are how Karlsson and Brent Burns rank among their positional peers in goals, assists, points, power play points and shots on goal:

Karlsson — 3rd (83), 1st (272), 1st (355), 1st (132), 2nd (1,211).

Burns —1st (107), 2nd (219), 2nd (326), 3rd (117), 1st (1,495).

As Burns tweeted when the trade news broke: “Unreal! Can’t wait to see that sauce in person!”

For now, at least, said sauce is only for rent. Entering the final season of his $6.5 million contract, the 28-year-old Karlsson would surely entertain Tavares-levels of free agency courtship if he hit the open market next summer. Various pick conditions baked into the deal will help soften the blow for San Jose should he walk, but it’s awfully easy to imagine Karlsson staying put too. With Burns, shutdown specialist Marc-Edouard Vlasic, goalie Martin Jones, and prime-age forwards Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl all locked down through 2021-22, the Stanley Cup window in the Bay Area remains plenty open.  

Much like signing Tavares vaulted an already-strong Maple Leafs squad into title favorite territory, acquiring Karlsson should put San Jose in lockstep with Nashville and Winnipeg atop the Western Conference. (Ensuring that the four-time Norris Trophy finalist did not join Pacific Division rival Vegas was a bonus byproduct for Wilson as well.) But even if Karlsson decides against signing long-term, even if his surgically repaired left ankle poses unexpected problems, the Sharks made the no-brainer decision that Wilson summarized in a statement like this: “It's extremely rare that players of this caliber become available.”

Which brings us to the team that made that caliber of player available in the first place. Cringeworthy as it was, the after-dark, in-house interview between veteran Mark Borowiecki and owner Eugene Melnyk that dropped during Monday Night Football quite clearly announced the blueprints for a detonation plan. Maybe Balcers, 21, and Norris, 19, will blossom into useful NHL pieces. Perhaps those future draft picks will pan out. Surely general manager Pierre Dorion is not finished acquiring soon, whether by flipping expiring deals (Matt Duchene, Mark Stone) or finding buyers for bloated contracts (Bobby Ryan). And maybe the Senators will indeed rediscover relevancy at the end of this painful road. But it was sure tough to watch Karlsson fighting tears at his farewell press conference, lamenting “a very emotional and sad day” and calling Ottawa “my forever home,” and not wonder how nine elite seasons could end like this.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever in my wildest imagination thought I would leave this place, but unfortunately we’re here under these circumstances,” Karlsson said Thursday, replying to a question from TSN about whether he had spurned an extension offer from the Senators in July. (His agent, Craig Oster, did not return a voicemail from SI requesting comment.) Those reports emerged not long Karlsson’s wife Melinda had filed for a protection order against then Ottawa winger Mike Hoffman’s fiancee, alleging harassment and cyberbullying; the Senators subsequently traded Hoffman to San Jose, who then flipped him to Florida.

“I think they made it very clear what direction they were going with,” Karlsson said later. “Unfortunately I wasn’t part of that.”

Of course, focusing on such bummers is to ignore more entertaining curiosities awaiting in Karlsson’s new home. Like how coach Pete DeBoer will divide ice time between Burns and Karlsson on the Sharks’ power play. Or whether Vlasic will continue skating with longtime partner Justin Braun, ensuring that San Jose will have either him, Burns or Karlsson on the ice for every moment of even strength. Or if Burns and Karlsson can become the first set of blue line teammates with 20 goals apiece since Washington’s Sylvain Cote, Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate in ‘92–93.

Now that is some scrumptious preseason sauce.