Erik Karlsson is one of the few players in the league today to be called an elite defenseman drafted in the new NHL after the 2005 lockout. Sure, that 2005-06 post-lockout season inherited complete superstars such as Nick Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, and Scott Niedermayer, but it was always going to be interesting to see who would emerge as the next generation of elite defensemen for the new NHL.
Well, it’s pretty obvious at this point.
Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, P.K. Subban, Brent Burns, and Mister Karlsson represent the truly elite defenseman of today’s game. Or, if I had to make a current top 5, it would be some combination of those fellas.
Let’s flash back to the new NHL’s 2nd ever season, the 2007-08 campaign. This was a season where the new NHL was still figuring out its identy, and it was also a season where the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup. More specifically, they won the Stanley Cup with one of the greatest defensive duos of the millennium in Pronger and Niedermayer, and two spry future Team Canada regulars named Corey and Ryan.
If you look at the top defensemen in the game from 2002-2007, it would be foolish to exclude Pronger and Niedermayer, who would be joined by players like Nick Lidstrom, Rob Blake, Sergei Gonchar, and Sergei Zubov.
With Karlsson on the trading block, that very first group of defensemen we listed – Doughty, Hedman, Subban, Burns, and Karlsson – now have the possibility to replicate the Pronger-Niedermayer scenario that brought Disneyland Lord Stanley’s Cup. Thus, only a few teams can catapult their chances of winning a Cup if they acquire the Swedish stud: Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and San Jose.
Let’s check out what makes each potential team interesting.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
We start with Tampa because they’re our lone Eastern Conference candidate, and perhaps because it would be the most convincing argument if GM Steve Yzerman acquired Karlsson, and then said, “we’re winning a Stanley Cup in next June.” Tampa is completely juiced throughout their roster with Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Vasilevskiy forming an enviable core, and strong support staff such as Point, Miller, McDonagh, Stralman, Sergachev, Gourde, and Johnson.
It’s already a team with depth, and while plucking Karlsson from the flailing Senators is an obvious move, they of course would likely have to part with one or multiple members of said support staff. Sergachev seems an obvious key in an any Karlsson sign-and-trade return.
Still, the possibility of Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Karlsson, and Vasilevskiy being your top 5 assets would be impossible to ignore. It would be hands down one of the best cores the new NHL has ever seen. The truly elite talent of Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, and Karlsson speak for themselves, and given that Vasilevskiy was just a Vezina finalist, Tampa bay could be one of the few teams that confidently boast five elite franchise players.
Depth at top tier talent talent. Must be nice.
Not to mention, facing Hedman or Karlsson for at least 50 minutes of a hockey game would be very difficult.
2. Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles is next because they have the most room to improve, and are the only team whose existing elite defender has won multiple Stanley Cups and gold medals. Yep, Drew Doughty. He’s been one of the top defensemen in the game, and has finished top 2 in Norris Trophy voting three of the last four years, winning it in 2015-16 season. Of course, Erik Karlsson is the other defenceman who was top 2 in voting in 3 of the last 4 years.
In fact, you can look at the past 5 top 3 Norris finishes and conclude that to the NHL Trophy voting squad, Doughty and Karlsson are clearly the two best defensemen in the game.
Adding Karlsson would mean Kopitar, Doughty, Carter, Quick, and Toffoli would comprise the top tier of the LA franchise, with Brown, Martinez, Phaneuf, Pearson, and Kempe comprising a solid but not excellent supporting cast.
But LA has a chance to have the two best defensemen in the game. That’s almost like Scott Niedermayer joining Nick Lidstrom via trade.
Defense might not be enough for the Kings, since their offense is lackluster, but what a defense it would be. If the Kings can somehow pull this off (and I think they should push as hard as they can to do so), they could lock up the two top defenders in the game with identical long term contracts. They would likely have to part with some combination of Kale Clague or Gabe Valardi but that seems an obvious choice from LA management’s point of view.
And, if you hadn’t thought about it yet, facing either Doughty or Karlsson for at least 50 minutes of a hockey game would be very difficult.
3. San Jose Sharks
Lastly, the San Jose Sharks because they have Brent Burns.
Burns won the Norris back in 2017 after just missing out on joining Mike Green as the only new NHL defenseman to hit 30 goals, by netting 29. But with 29 tallies and 75 points from the back end, Burns was one of the most fascinating talents to emerge on the blue line. He took a while to truly become a star, but at 30 years old the 6’6 dynamo broke out for 27 goals and 75 points, and hasn’t really stopped. Burnsy’s only question is the longevity of his elite skills – as he hit 33 years of age this past March.
If Karlsson landed on the Sharks, head coach Pete Deboer could roll out the league’s best playmaking offensive defenseman in Karlsson for half the game, and pop out the league’s best goal scoring defenseman promptly after. It’s a recipe for some serious sauce in the transition game. Neither are shy on the rush.
Karlsson would join Burns, Pavelski, Couture, Vlasic, and Jones as the elite core of the team, with Thornton, Kane, Hertl, Labanc, and Tierney in what makes a deep, high end support staff. Even if Thornton is 39 years old, it’s never bad having him and Kane as your 6th and 7th best assets.
It’s hard to say what San Jose would have to move, or even have to offer. But if they could pull it off, it would open up the possibility of having the best offensive defenseman in the league in each category wearing a Sharks jersey.
And something about the prospect of facing either Burns or Karlsson for at least 50 minutes of every hockey game sounds pretty difficult.