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Penguins Trade Analysis: Dubas Gets His Man at Bargain Price



Erik Karlsson

It’s a stretch to suggest that acquiring Erik Karlsson has transformed the Pittsburgh Penguins into a leading contender for the 2024 Stanley Cup.

Adding Bobby Orr in his prime probably wouldn’t have been enough to make that happen.

But it defies dispute that the Penguins are a significantly better team than they were at the end of the 2022-23 season, and that they have the potential to develop into a significant force by next spring.

It was, of course, no surprise that Kyle Dubas, just a few days into his role as full-time GM, constructed a deal that finally allowed him to land Karlsson, winner of the 2023 Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.

After all, Dubas has proven during his front-office time in Toronto and Pittsburgh that he can be tenacious. He made it clear that adding Karlsson was a priority, so it was predictable that he would be relentless trying to reach that objective.

No, what’s amazing about the three-team deal that brought Karlsson to the Penguins is how little Dubas actually had to give up in the exchange, and how much salary-cap space he opened in the process.

Oh, that doesn’t mean that sacrificing some of the assets that Dubas surrendered won’t sting a bit, but none come close to being a crippling blow. Consider what he gave up:

*** 2024 first-round draft choice. This might be the greatest loss, given the paucity of quality prospects on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organizational depth chart. But if the Penguins have the kind of season of which they clearly believe they are capable, that pick won’t be particularly early in the draft. And, like it or not, a team usually has to part with a piece of its future to appreciably enhance its present. (And vice versa.)

*** Mikael Granlund. He is not as ineffective as he looked in his 21-game audition after being acquired from Nashville just before the trade deadline, if only because it would be tough for any player to stay in the league if he performed at that level on an extended basis. It’s entirely possible that Granlund will be better in San Jose than he was here, but he did nothing to suggest he would be someone on whom Mike Sullivan and his staff could rely. And shedding his $5 million cap hit obviously is a plus.

*** Jeff Petry. There was nothing terribly wrong with Petry’s play after he was acquired from Montreal last summer. Nothing terribly noteworthy, either. He was OK and that’s, well. OK. But the Penguins surely were expecting more from a veteran who carried a $6.25 million cap hit, and since he will be 36 in December, it’s far from certain that they would get it in the two years remaining on his contract.

*** Jan Rutta. He was a perfectly adequate, third-pairing defensive defenseman in his lone season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Did his job, didn’t generate headlines. He would have had a place in the lineup if Dubas hadn’t traded him, but his departure doesn’t create a hole that can’t be filled.

*** Nathan Legare. The Penguins had great expectations for Legare when they chose him in the third round of the 2019 draft, but he never seriously threatened to crack the NHL lineup. Perhaps playing in his hometown of Montreal will help him play to his potential, but he did very little as a pro to indicate that he would get to that level with the Penguins.

*** Casey DeSmith. Although he probably would have been the favorite to retain his spot as Tristan Jarry’s backup, a series of free-agent signings was going to make for a crowded crease during training camp, and it was evident the Penguins were going to lose a goalie, either in a trade or on waivers. DeSmith is a capable No. 2 and accepts that role, which should work to his benefit with the Canadiens.

*** 2025 second-round draft choice. It’s fair to think that the Penguins might have secured a decent prospect with this choice, but giving it up isn’t the kind of thing that will do irreparable damage to a prospects pool.

Although Dubas said more than a month ago that the Penguins had constructed personnel options before dealing with the salary cap, he probably wasn’t envisioning making so much progress in a deal that also landed his top offseason target.

That, however, is what happened.

The Penguins began the day more than $3 million over the 2023-24 cap ceiling of $83.5 million. After the trade, they are less than $100,000 from being cap-compliant, and that’s without putting first-line left winger Jake Guentzel, who is recovering from ankle surgery, on the Long-Term Injured list.

Mind you, the Pittsburgh Penguins got more than just an elite defenseman and some salary-cap relief Sunday. Rem Pitlick should challenge for a spot on the bottom two lines, perhaps left winger Dillon Hamaliuk will contribute someday and even the 2026 third-round pick they’ll receive might turn into a solid player.

But the prize Dubas sought and landed, Karlsson, is huge. And the price he paid was remarkably low.