Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas has delivered on each of his early statements. He expected to acquire players who were cap casualties via trade instead of chasing free-agent splashes. Enter Reilly Smith via trade and a handful of modest free agent signings, none more expensive than 27-year-old Ryan Graves at $4.5 million.
Check and check.
Dubas also said he would evaluate goalie Tristan Jarry based on market forces and wanted a competitive training camp. Again, check and check. As we learn more about the asking price for the few goalies on the NHL trade block, they seem unaffordable to all but the most desperate seekers or buyers with rich surpluses of cash and prospects.
And Dubas has fortified his organizational depth very quickly. Vinnie Hinostroza and Andreas Johnsson were the Friday additions who could easily fill a bottom-six role or play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Ryan Shea and Radim Zohorna will also significantly upgrade a beleaguered WBS Penguins team that was malnourished under the previous regime.
Zohorna could be their No. 1 center, providing much-needed playmaking from the pivot position that they sorely lacked last season, leaving wingers like Valtteri Puustinen and Alex Nylander to fend for themselves in the offensive zone.
The other added benefit of increased depth is increased competition for jobs. Even those players who make the NHL roster in October can’t feel too comfortable knowing the depth behind them. Sometimes being uncomfortable is a pretty good motivator.
Ryan Graves was the best possible Brian Dumoulin replacement on the market. Reilly Smith will add some offensive pop and defensive responsibility to the top six and penalty kill. Additional free agent signings Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto also present significant upgrades and speed.
Even Jarry’s contract was a gamble born of circumstance that has better odds of succeeding than failing (and for everyone who criticizes the term, remember that negotiations are two-sided affairs, and the Penguins had few other options).
Those are the things Dubas has done well.
However, Dubas is also flirting with a massive upheaval. Yes, that means Erik Karlsson.
On the surface, an upheaval sounds great for a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 17 years and failed to rise to the occasion when a playoff spot rested within easy grasp.
That kind of team should be ripped apart and put back together differently.
And yes, adding a great player is rarely a bad thing.
But Karlsson represents every bit as much, if not more, risk as Jarry’s five-year deal. Karlsson crested the 100-point mark for a terrible San Jose Sharks team last season. He won the Norris Trophy. He was also a minus-26, despite 74 even-strength points.
How can any player score so many points and be so deep in the red? Karlsson had a negative 17 differential with empty netters, which means he was also on the ice for 83 even-strength or shorthanded goals against.
Before last season, Karlsson’s previous point totals were 35, 22, 40, and 45, respectively. He played as many as 56 games only once in those four seasons.
Erik Karlsson was tasked with being the pillar of the Sharks, who built from the backend, including fellow Norris winner Brent Burns.
Instead, San Jose missed the playoffs in each of Karlsson’s first four seasons there.
Further, Burns’s production fell by about 25% in his four seasons with Karlsson. Burns fell from 277 points in the four seasons preceding Karlsson’s arrival to 208 in the four afterward, not scoring more than 54 points in the final three seasons.
Former Sharks GM Doug Wilson bet big on the two defensemen and lost. San Jose didn’t take a step forward but quickly and painfully regressed to four straight playoff misses.
Burns rebounded to score 61 points this season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Don’t misunderstand, the above is not to bash Karlsson. He is an electric and dynamic player when healthy. It’s to point out that adding Karlsson to a blue line with Kris Letang will not be a doubling of offense but rather a lesser factor from each player because, for all of their talent, there remains just one puck, one top power play, and one No. 1 role.
But a coach must keep both happy. Sure, it could work if coach Mike Sullivan stripped away the top role from Letang and clearly defined him as a No. 2 with more penalty killing, less ice time, less offensive zone time, more defensive zone time, and less power-play time.
Sure, that would go over well.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins would need to pay handsomely for that privilege of getting less from both Karlsson and Letang.
As the Penguins sit on July 8, they appear to be a playoff team again. They have no glaring needs, both a starting goalie and goaltending depth should the starter falter, speed in their bottom six, a bit more physicality, a few actual prospects in the pipeline, and a fresh outlook with a significant number of new faces.
And Sidney Crosby.
It would be heresy for a Penguins GM to shop for a first or second-line center. This isn’t much different.
And we haven’t yet delved into Karlsson’s age. He’s already 33 with four more years on his contract. Regardless of how much salary San Jose eats and how much the rumored third team would pick up, Karlsson would be married to the Penguins, for better and worse.
And there is a significant risk that it could be for worse.
Dubas has done well to nibble around the edges and change the secondary pieces. While Karlsson confirmed his immense talent last season, his campaign stands in direct contrast to his three and five-year trends of soft production and significant injuries.
There seem to be plenty of other avenues to remake the team and players who could significantly contribute. The view here is that Dubas should continue with the astute smaller moves with less risk but high reward.
…At least until Mitch Marner hits the trade or free-agent market.