Kyle Dubas has received a lot of praise since he assumed control of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey operations last month, and understandably so.
Acquiring Reilly Smith from Vegas, which needed to open salary-cap space, for a third-round draft choice was a masterstroke, especially when Dubas was aware that he wasn’t likely to re-sign second-line winger Jason Zucker.
Making a five-year, $26.875,000 million commitment to Tristan Jarry was a move that can — and, almost certainly, will — be debated for weeks and months, if not years, but it had become clear well before that deal was formalized on July 1 that Dubas was more likely to locate a candy-striped unicorn wearing tap shoes than he was to find a top-shelf goaltender in free agency.
And bringing in the likes of Lars Eller, Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto surely should bolster the bottom two lines, which was one of Dubas’ stated priorities when he began to revamp the roster.
At the very least, Dubas’ moves have enhanced the Penguins’ chances of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs (remember those?) next spring. He has not, however, transformed them into a group that anyone would put on the short list of Cup contenders.
That’s not a criticism, but a simple statement of the obvious.
While the Penguins certainly are better than they were when their 2022-23 season ended abruptly three months ago, they’re not so much better that they’ve morphed from being a non-qualifier into a club that reasonably can be projected to represent the Eastern Conference in a Cup final. (Of course, that’s something the Penguins haven’t done since 2017, which was one year before their most recent victory in a playoff series.)
But constructing a team that could challenge for the franchise’s sixth championship was part of the mandate Dubas received when he was named the Penguins’ president of hockey operations and interim GM, which explains why trying to pry Erik Karlsson out of San Jose appears to be at the top of his to-do list.
Graft Karlsson onto the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup, and they would instantly become a more formidable, perhaps even imposing, club.
Karlsson, of course, won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman last season, and is an offensive force with few, if any, equals. On the blue line, anyway.
From all indications, the cluster of teams intent on adding him has been winnowed to the Penguins and Carolina. The Sharks’ negotiations with the Penguins and Hurricanes appear to be stalemated — there’s usually not much urgency to finalize a trade in mid-July — and it isn’t clear what kind of ransom San Jose is demanding to set Karlsson free from a team undergoing a major rebuild.
Logically, though, the Sharks figure to be interested in obtaining assets who might not be significant contributors for several seasons, when GM Mike Grier’s roster overhaul is complete.
And that is why Dubas’ interest in Karlsson is more than a little perplexing.
Not only because the Penguins are reasonably solid on the right side of their defense, where they have Kris Letang, Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and Chad Ruhwedel, or because they’re already poised to flirt with the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling of $83.5 million without taking on even a portion of Karlsson’s $11.5 million cap hit.
Yes, Karlsson would upgrade the right side of the defense and Dubas could make a few other trades to open cap space (although, in the process, he might undermine some of the progress made during the past few weeks).
But improving the Penguins in the present by acquiring Karlsson would directly conflict with the other part of Dubas’ mandate: To rebuild the Penguins’ organizational depth, restock the puddle that passes for a prospects pool.
That requires holding onto promising young players like Owen Pickering and Brayden Yager, and retaining the kind of early-round draft choices used to secure their rights. (The Penguins have had picks in Round 1 of the draft in consecutive years for the first time since 2009-2012.)
Trouble is, those are precisely the type of assets the Sharks presumably would insist on receiving. Dubas isn’t going to get Karlsson for, say, Mikael Granlund, Jeff Petry and a conditional seventh-round draft choice.
Whether Dubas should surrender a sizeable chunk of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ future for the sake of their present is a perfectly valid subject for conjecture. That it is delusional to believe he can dramatically improve the current roster while simultaneously bolstering it for the years to come defies contention.