While the realities of the NHL’s salary cap are top of mind, with Ken Holland stating plainly that the Edmonton Oilers will have to operate under a dollar-in dollar-out mandate this trade deadline—and the realities of the Oilers team makeup with a talented offensive blueline (on the right side in particular)—it is contradictory on many fronts that the Oilers are confirmed to be in talks with the San Jose Sharks to acquire the services of Erik Karlsson. From what we know about the Oilers’ circumstances such a move makes little sense but for one fact, Karlsson is a supremely and uniquely talented player.
The front runner for the Norris Trophy and the Sharks leading scorer by a wide margin, Karlsson is nearing his top form once more. After several tough seasons involving foot injuries, awkward team fits, and poor team performance, Karlsson has clearly reasserted himself as one of the world’s top players.
What Karlsson needs to be elite
32-year-old Karlsson is a right shot, with an $11.5M cap hit for four seasons after this one. Given the circumstances that have hindered his play of the past few seasons, and his current elevated level of play, it’s entirely possible that Karlsson is able to maintain a high level of play through the remainder of the deal.
Karlsson will never be mistaken for the league’s best defensive defenceman, but his offensive contributions are elite to a point that his potentially suspect defending is hardly much concern. To make having Karlsson worthwhile he needs top pairing minutes with a partner who can operate as a defensive conscience, as well as unquestioned top billing on the power play. Without these conditions, as the Sharks discovered while employing both Karlsson and Brent Burns in years past, it is unlikely a team will get its money’s worth from Karlsson.
Where Karlsson would fit on the Oilers’ lineup
Karlsson would most likely be paired with Brett Kulak, or perhaps one day Philip Broberg, taking over top pair duties from Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. As a second pairing, Nurse and even more so Ceci would be slotted more appropriately, constituting a really strong top four.
The third pair might see far less icetime than the young duo of Broberg and Evan Bouchard has been earning recently, with the duo of Karlsson and Nurse capable of averaging more than 45 combined minutes of icetime a night. If the Oilers were able to acquire Karlsson while keeping both Broberg and Bouchard it would be a great trade from the Oilers side, though Karlsson would decrease the need, or at least the immediacy in which the Oilers need Broberg and/or Bouchard to take on legitimate top four minutes.
Karlsson would replace Tyson Barrie as the top power play option as well, making Barrie a potential deal to move off of. The Oilers will need to make an offer fitting of the Sharks needs, the right bouquet of potential future value and current salary dollars. The Oilers have enough to make it happen, depending on how aggressively they want to mortgage their future, which will of course be the deciding factor in this whole ordeal.
What the Sharks need in return
The Sharks will not be competing for a playoff spot this year, and Karlsson is hardly the only big name being rumoured to be leaving San Jose in the coming weeks. No doubt the Shark will be looking for a massive haul in any Karlsson trade, swapping his effectiveness now for future value. As their leading scorer, Karlsson is a huge part of anything the Sharks have going for them, but his importance grows when the Sharks organisational depth is considered.
On the roster the Sharks have some decent defencemen, but none of these options provide much in terms of offence. The Sharks recently traded Ryan Merkley, a young, puck moving, right shot as well, further exacerbating the issue.
Artemi Knyazev is a 22 year old left shot in the AHL, and might be the only defenceman with notable offensive skill in the Sharks system that is at all close to the NHL. Mattias Havelid is a 19 year old left shot currently in the SHL, and a notable prospect as a puck moving defenceman as well, but is hardly expected to jump into the NHL next season. While there are younger players who still might exceed public opinion, there are not exactly many reinforcements rearing for the next season or two.
While tanking or accumulating assets for the future is worthwhile, limiting the Sharks on ice product so significantly for such a long period of time will hardly be conducive to any players on their roster being supported well enough to develop in positive ways. With a number of promising forwards in their prospects system, in particular William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Daniil Gushchin, and Filip Bystedt, the Sharks are nearing an influx of talent that should be put in a position to succeed.
We are still learning what types of moves Sharks GM Mike Grier will make, as the former Oilers assistant captain is in his first year as Sharks GM, a position that former GM Doug Wilson held since 2003. So far we’ve seen him slowly shuffle the coals, making moves methodically and patiently. Especially as a team that is at least retooling, it might not be fair to expect we’ll know any type of return from Grier’s most pivotal decisions for a few years still. Early on, Grier seems to be targeting size or physicality, as acquisitions like Luke Kunin, Nico Sturm, and Martin Kaut might exemplify.
That being said the Sharks will look to acquire significant draft and prospect capital. Prospects that play defence or have size might be higher on the Sharks valuations. Theoretically the Oilers still need to be even on the salary transfer, so it’s not impossible that the Sharks retain salary, though such a proposal would be pricey.
Potential moves the Oilers could make
It is a given that this year’s first round pick would be involved. There will be at least another draft asset involved, likely even another first round pick. This shouldn’t be a huge concern for the Oilers at this point, who have some ammunition in this regard.
The Sharks would do really well to acquire either Broberg or Bouchard in return, but if the Oilers can tempt the Sharks elsewhere. Might Max Wanner be more of what the Sharks are looking for? The state of the Sharks blueline might demand they prioritise one of these players.
Though the Sharks might not need forwards, Dylan Holloway might hold a great deal of value, though his NHL readiness might make him worth more to the Oilers than younger prospects like Xavier Bourgault or Reid Schaefer might—both of whom might fit traits the Sharks seem to value.
The salaries would need to balance, meaning players with significant money need to be headed to the Sharks. Barrie seems like an ideal candidate, given his subsequent redundancy in the Oilers’ lineup and his sizable cap hit. He would offer some value as a puck moving option for the Sharks in the short term, something they might owe to their current players to an extent. It will be imperative that the Oilers keep one of Barrie or Bouchard to play behind Karlsson.
Jesse Puljujarvi is an interesting piece in this deal. His $3M cap hit is significant enough to make a difference in this negotiation. He might fit a great reclamation project with upside, flourishing in a change of scenery, but quite frankly he can be a solid contributor for the Sharks current identity with his current play.
Together Barrie and Puljujarvi’s cap hit is just $7.5M, not enough to cover Karlsson’s $11.5M outright. $4M for this season, and not to mention four other years, is a steep commitment for any team to retain, even if a third team retains as well. For this reason other mid-salary players are likely to be involved. Warren Foegele? Kailer Yamamoto? It would be shocking to see Nurse or Jack Campbell involved, though surely some Oilers fans will wish for it in the name of value per cap dollar.
What this tells us about the team’s thoughts
Such an aggressive negotiation clearly shows us that the Oilers view this season and the next two, where both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are under contract, as paramount. Yes, Bouchard might have a fantastic career, but over the next three years it is likely Karlsson who provides more value, for example. It is possible Karlsson remains an NHL level contributor past his current contract, where a rising cap might even make his services more affordable.
In other words the team agrees with the fans in our recent Sunday Census, the Pacific Division, if not the Western Conference as a whole, is up for the Oilers to grab.