The conclusion of the 2017-18 National Hockey League campaign brought about one of the most hotly anticipated offseasons in recent memory.
And yet, outside of John Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s really just been a whole lot of “meh.”
Tavares aside, none of the decisions of any unrestricted free agent has really shifted the league’s balance of power. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Drew Doughty, two of the NHL’s top defensemen, both re-signed with their respective squads, despite having the chance to test the waters of unrestricted free agency next summer. And the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson, the market’s prized piece of trade bait, still hasn’t been dealt.
So, given that we’re all thoroughly bored, here’s one for you: assuming he signs an extension with them, how about Karlsson to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Aaron Ekblad?
Hear me out.
Disclaimer on Karlsson-Ekblad Theory
First off, I should note that there’s nothing I’ve come across to signal the Panthers are seriously in on the 28-year-old superstar
The Tampa Bay Lightning have long been rumoured to be the frontrunners when it comes to adding Karlsson, but the serious trade rumblings earlier this month have since died down. The Dallas Stars are supposed to be another team in on the action, and the Vegas Golden Knights were interested in his services at the trade deadline, so it’s only logical they’d also be sniffing about this time around, as well.
That said, the Panthers reportedly inquired about Karlsson at the trade deadline, and their situation on defense really hasn’t changed all that much (with the exception of adding Kontinental Hockey League standout Bogdan Kiselevich), so there’s every reason to suspect they’d still be interested.
That is, unless the Mike Hoffman trade has soured things a little between Senators’ general manager Pierre Dorion and Panthers’ GM Dale Tallon.
Not to mention the investigation surrounding Hoffman’s fiancée and some horrifying cyberbullying allegations, which is what prompted Hoffman’s trade from the Senators in the first place. One would imagine that, if the Panthers would be considering this at all, they’d have to receive some assurances showing Hoffman was no part of the incidents – and that Karlsson would be willing to acknowledge as such, too. Publicly, anyway, the investigation is still very much ongoing.
Why Would a Trade Make Sense for Karlsson?
Though Karlsson is not yet a UFA, it’s clear he has a significant amount of say in where he ends up. His current contract includes a 10-team no-trade list, and the Senators granted permission for other teams to speak with their captain regarding a potential contract extension.
Panthers a Prime Landing Spot
And why shouldn’t he want to play in South Florida? Fantastic weather, no state income tax and a slightly less rabid media market than, you know, the capital of a hockey-obsessed country.
The Panthers have a pretty darned good team, too; the Cats finished the season on a 25-8-2 run, just missing out on the playoffs (their 96 points in 2017-18 are tied for the most ever by a non-playoff team), and look to be even better in 2018-19, with the aforementioned additions of Hoffman and Kiselevich, not to mention the likely full-time NHL status of top-tier prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett. The Panthers also play an aggressive, up-tempo style which would seem to suit Karlsson quite nicely.
Of course, the Lightning also play in Florida and also have a very good team – one with a much better track record of success, too; the Bolts have made it to the Eastern Conference Final or beyond three of the past four years.
However, the likes of Anton Stralman, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov will be in need of new contracts next summer, meaning there’s likely to be significant roster renovation in the coming years in Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have a much more stable cap situation, with most of their core locked up long-term. Plus, minus Ekblad, the Panthers currently have less than $56 million committed next season, leaving them plenty of room to accommodate a Karlsson extension.
That said, there’s still the situation with Hoffman and his fiancée which, even if resolved absolving Karlsson’s former teammate, may not be a situation Karlsson wants to put himself in for the next two seasons – at least.
Panthers’ Ownership Not the Same as Senators’
The only thing that might turn Karlsson off the Panthers is the team’s ownership having a history of meddling, not to mention a desire to run the team on a relatively tight budget.
Make no mistake, though; this is no Ottawa. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is all about dollars and cents, while Florida’s Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu are more just impatient to win than anything else. They might just have learned their lesson, too; neither Viola nor Cifu have (publicly) factored in on any major hockey decision in almost a year! (*knocks on wood*)
True, Viola has laid out his vision of “a very competitive, non-cap team,” but he’s spent money before when needed and, let’s be honest, having a good team with a chance to win changes a lot of things. It’s also worth nothing the Panthers look to be fairly tight against the cap this year – even tighter than the Lightning.
Why Would a Trade Make Sense for the Panthers?
Simply put, the Panthers should go all-in these next few years.
Ekblad is a very good defenseman, and he’s still just 22 years of age. He’s proven very effective on the offensive side of the puck, but there are concerns his overall progression has plateaued the past couple seasons.
However, playing for three different coaches in three different systems in under a calendar year, not to mention some serious concussion issues, would be difficult for any player, let alone one so young. This past season, first-year head coach Bob Boughner also used Ekblad markedly differently than any coach before, starting him in the offensive zone much less often than ever before.
Still, with the Panthers’ stable of talented forwards locked up to very reasonable deals – most of them long term, it’s clear Florida’s window to win is now. Ekblad may well develop into the franchise-calibre, perennial Norris Trophy-candidate defensemen he was projected to be, but he’s clearly still some ways away.
Karlsson, meanwhile, is one of the best defensemen – if not the best – in the world, and he has been for seven seasons. And, at 28 years of age, he’s no doubt still got a whole lot left to give. Yes, there are concerns about his health; Karlsson had some pretty serious foot surgery last year. That said, Karlsson still put up 62 points in 71 games in 2017-18, despite recovering from said surgery, coping with the loss of his son and playing on an abjectly terrible Senators team.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to load up and go for it. I think this is that time for the Panthers. With Karlsson signed to a reasonable extension – which shouldn’t be a problem, given the Panthers’ projected cap room next season and the tax benefits of living in Florida, they’ll no doubt be serious contenders for the foreseeable future.
At the very least, such a trade would keep Karlsson away from the Lightning…
Why Would a Trade Make Sense for the Senators?
As much as the Panthers are a budget team, Melnyk might as well be Smaug’s twin brother. Cost certainty is key for the Ottawans. Ekblad provides that, with seven seasons left on his deal at $7.5 million against the cap, with a relatively stable salary structure throughout.
He’s also young enough to be part of the Senators’ rebuild and, at the very least, should be a very good defenseman, if not a definitive number one, on Ottawa’s finished product when it’s ready to compete.
In the meantime, Ekblad would be a quality option for the Senators’ blue line, helping to ease some of the pain surely in store for this already battered franchise. He’ll no doubt receive ample time on the power play to further his already impressive offensive prowess, while playing under a defensive-minded coach like Guy Boucher should do wonders for his defensive game.
In terms of all the pieces no doubt being thrown the Senators’ way in offers for Karlsson, Ekblad might just be the best they get. Though Karlsson is unquestionably a better player, such a trade would be the closest thing to a wash Dorion can hope to achieve, given the situation.
What Would a Karlsson-Ekblad Trade Look Like?
In a straight-up, one-for-one trade, the Panthers would be getting the best of the deal. However, literally any team trading for Karlsson is going to come out on the better end of things, as they’ll be icing one of the best players in the world come the fall.
It’s not just the player himself, though; it’s also the situation. Dorion is over a barrel when it comes to Karlsson, and everybody knows it. There are very few situations imaginable in which he actually receives fair value for his prime asset.
Still, Ekblad would be a pretty decent return for the Senators; a young, talented, two-way defenseman with four seasons already under his belt and a high developmental ceiling. I really can’t see the Panthers being willing to give up more; no doubt Ekblad would be their final offer, included reluctantly only after some tough negotiation on the part of Dorion.
In terms of what the Senators send back, I can’t see the Panthers being willing to accept both Karlsson and Bobby Ryan (the Senators have tried to package the two in the past), given the latter’s $7.25 million cap hit the next four seasons (the Panthers, surprisingly, look to be close to cap-strapped). Now, if the Senators retain salary, maybe there’s a fit, but I would imagine the Panthers would attempt to use their taking of Ryan as leverage to ensure Ekblad need not be included in the deal in the first place.
Will the Karlsson Saga Ever End?
Whether you agree with the premise of this article or not, I think we can all agree the Karlsson-Senators saga has dragged on far, far too long. And, of course, with several volumes worth of backstory and no clear resolution on the horizon, there’s nothing else we can do but speculate and theorise.
Karlsson for Ekblad would be as fair a trade as the Senators could hope to come by. It’d be beneficial for the Panthers, too, given their imminent need to make a push to contend for the Stanley Cup.
Just a good old-fashioned hockey trade, then. What’s not to like?
(Last updated at 9:50 a.m., 10 July 2018)
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.