Penguins’ Acquisition of Karlsson Changes the Team’s Complexion

Kyle Dubas got his man. After much of this summer was filled with conjecture and plenty of “Will he? Won’t he?” intrigue, the newly minted Pittsburgh Penguins general manager (GM) landed Erik Karlsson, the biggest prize of the 2023 offseason, in a three-team trade with the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens. With 12 assets changing hands, it is the biggest deal in franchise history.

Erik Karlsson San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s a deal that surprises many in that it works at all. The Penguins managed to stay under the salary cap, and, just as importantly, they actually got younger. Now that they have their best offensive defenseman since Paul Coffey over 30 years ago, a team that struggled to score down the stretch last season will see its whole look drastically changed for the better in the 2023-24 season.

Last Season’s Team Versus the Penguins Now

Last season, the Penguins had a middling offense. Conventional wisdom would suggest that any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ought to be among the NHL’s best in scoring, especially if the two of them could just stay healthy for a full season together. But that just wasn’t the case, as they ranked 17th of the league’s 32 teams with 262 goals scored. To make matters worse, they allowed 264 goals to wind up with a minus-2 goal differential. That simply should not happen to a team with two future Hall of Famers who are still producing late in their careers.

Sure, they boasted six 20-goal scorers, Jake Guentzel leading the way with 36 and Crosby adding 33. But in the final 20 games of the season, with them battling with and eventually losing out to both the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers for a playoff spot, the offense struggled to produce. Guentzel still scored goals. The recently departed Jason Zucker chipped in. But up and down the Penguins’ roster the goals just dried up.

One issue involved team health, as Jan Rutta and Jeff Petry, for example, spent significant chunks of the season on injured reserve (IR). Kris Letang’s wild season was also a hurdle and is widely discussed here. Though Petry and Letang produced when they were in the lineup, their presences were dearly missed, as much of the rest of the blue line failed to help create chances for the forwards.

As for the team’s forwards, specifically the top six with their 20 goals or more, they avoided the injury bug. Only Zucker and Guentzel missed as many as four games. But what was an issue was team speed. The bottom six forwards, and many of their defensemen, simply weren’t able to keep up with teams like the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers. Josh Yohe of The Athletic put it succinctly:

Other than the health issue, which I will touch on in a moment, acquiring Karlsson addresses each of these issues. Three mobility-challenged players were moved in the deal, and obviously, Karlsson has speed to burn. His skating, creativity, passing, and shooting will help jumpstart the Penguins’ attack. The thought of Karlsson working the point on the powerplay with Letang and feeding Crosby, Guentzel, and Malkin ought to have fans excited.

Related: Penguins Won Erik Karlsson Blockbuster Trade

Also acquired was underrated forward Rem Pitlick, who, at 26, was the youngest of the NHL-level players moved in the deal. That could help immensely, as the Penguins had the oldest roster in the league a season ago. One player in particular, the 38-year-old Jeff Carter, struggled through many, many slumps all season with frustrated fans frequently calling for his benching. Pitlick gives the team an option to move him up to spell Carter if that happens again.

A Caveat to Conclude

Then there is the elephant in the room: the health risks involved. Last season was the first time in seven seasons Karlsson had a clean bill of health and played a full schedule. He even missed four games in the COVID-shortened 2021 season. Karlsson joining an aging team with his injury history could spell disaster, especially considering the team will be without Guentzel for the start of the season following his ankle surgery.

Jake Guentzel Pittsburgh Penguins
Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With that caution, consider this the ultimate high-risk/high-reward trade. It isn’t often you get an opportunity to nab a supremely talented player like Karlsson. His becoming the first defenseman to score 100 points in 30 years clearly illustrates that when he is healthy, he is still a premier blueliner in the league. Any defensive shortcomings he may have will be worth dealing with as long as he plays well with the apparently ageless Crosby.

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Consider also that Karlsson has not been in the playoffs since the Sharks’ 2019 run to the Western Conference Final. Combining that with Crosby and the rest of the core’s urge to return to the playoffs after last season’s failure, the Penguins might have secured a spot. The Eastern Conference is an arms race right now, and the 2023-24 season will provide plenty of flash.