The greatest free agent in NHL history, John Tavares broke the New York Islanders heart and signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who have lost the Eastern Conference Final in two of the last three years, appear to have cornered the trade market on Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. For context, Karlsson is arguably the most significant trade piece since the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt Jaromir Jagr in 2001.
Star players get the headlines but role players are as important in the outcome of any playoff series.
If one needs proof of that corollary, look no further than the last three Stanley Cup winners, the 2016 and 2017 Penguins and 2018 Washington Capitals. Players like Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle were integral pieces on the Penguins and Capitals Cup runs. Further, add more grinders and unheralded defensemen like the Penguins Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin, and the Capitals Brooks Orpik and Michael Kempny.
Not even puck possession was as crucial as role players. Both the 2017 Penguins and 2018 Capitals were sub-par Corsi teams en route to that glorious silver chalice.
Now, the Penguins’ biggest rivals are gaining star power, but the Penguins already have stars. So how do the Penguins compare to the new betting favorites, Toronto and Tampa Bay, in the Eastern Conference?
It’s easy to compare the Penguins to Toronto, which has a settled lineup. Both teams have outstanding forward groups and terrific center depth. The Penguins from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard are stout. The Maple Leafs lead off with Auston Matthews, or Tavares, with Nazem Kadri as their third line pivot. Not too shabby either.
Amusingly, the difference between the teams is made by which right wing you prefer: Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel or Toronto’s Mitchell Marner. Marner, in just his second season, had 42 points (14g, 28a) at 5v5. Kessel marked 50 points (22g, 28a) at even strength.
The biggest difference between Pittsburgh and Toronto, however, is defense. The Penguins have it. Toronto doesn’t. In fact, the Maple Leafs top pairing is Morgan Reilly and journeyman Ron Hainsey. Their second pairing is Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev, which pales in comparison the Penguins’ potential second pairing with Justin Schultz and one of Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak or Jack Johnson.
Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen kept the Leafs in the First Round series against Boston. The addition of Tavares will mask a lot of ills on Toronto’s blue line, but unless Toronto controls the puck, they are in trouble. The Penguins can match the Maple Leafs forwards, so:
Penguins vs. Maple Leafs: Advantage Penguins
Tampa Bay Problem
The Tampa Bay Lightning, as currently constituted, has a major ticker problem. They lack heart. When the Capitals began physically punishing them in Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning, collectively, had no response. Washington dominated Tampa Bay, which did not fight back.
The Lightning are attempting to fix this problem by adding Karlsson thereby creating one of the great blueline corps of the NHL’s modern era. Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are bonafide top-shelf defenders. Hedman is elite, though Karlsson is the most prolific defenceman in the NHL. If Tampa is successful getting Karlsson, the trio will form a magical combination of three pairings with an all-star defenseman, or a top four which includes three of them.
The Lightning would conceivably be able to shut down any team and provide offense from the back end. The defense would support a potent top line which consists of center Steve Stamkos and right wing Nikita Kucherov.
The Lightning’s issue remains their forward depth. While the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov makes both Art Ross trophy contenders, the remainder of the Lightning lines are good to average and below. Last season, second line center Brayden Point had a breakout year (32g, 34a) and is hard-nosed but also small.
The Lightning’s bottom-six forwards are a hodgepodge of gritty players including Ryan Callahan (for now) and the offensive-minded Alex Killhorn. They would not match up with a Penguins bottom-six crew anchored by centers Brassard and Riley Sheahan with wingers Kessel, potentially Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen (or Cullen could be a center with Sheahan on the left flank).
The Penguins, however, lack the physicality to knock the Lightning off their game. So, if the Lightning adds Karlsson, and even factoring a greater forwards disparity, the Penguins would be in trouble because they would likely struggle to crack the Lightning defense.
Penguins vs. Lightning (with Karlsson): Advantage Lightning.
Penguins vs. Lightning (without Karlsson): Advantage Penguins
So, how important is the Karlsson trade to Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman? It’s likely the difference between winning and losing to teams like the Penguins (and Capitals). In other words, it’s everything, and that’s why Tampa will probably pay the heftiest price.