Karlsson Trade Boosts Penguins, but Does Norris Winner Make Pittsburgh a Cup Contender?

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: Aug 7, 2023

At some point over the past month, the Erik Karlsson-to-Pittsburgh drum beats got so loud it stopped mattering that the money didn’t appear to work out.

It became clear the reigning Norris Trophy winner was Penguins president Kyle Dubas’ primary objective for the offseason. Ideally, Karlsson would help make Pittsburgh a Stanley Cup contender again.

Dubas patiently pulled off an expert deal, not only to land Karlsson but also to unload monetary mistakes made by his predecessors.

He successfully made Mikael Granlund’s $5 million cap hit disappear and convinced the Montreal Canadiens to take on defenseman Jeff Petry’s $6.2 million deal while only needing to retain $1.562 million on Petry and part with a protected 2024 first-rounder.

Still, the question remains: Can Karlsson help put Pittsburgh on the short list of Cup contenders?

The 33-year-old is coming off arguably his most impressive season as a pro, logging career-highs with 25 goals and 101 points while averaging 25:37 in ice time and playing every game. Still, he’s somehow underrated as a defenseman because *gasp* he doesn’t kill penalties.

He was minus-26 last season yet was on the ice for 21 empty-net goals against, which dwarfed his respectable 5-on-5 numbers. Additionally, he had 27 power-play points, which should aid the Penguins, who only ranked 14th in the league in PP percentage despite an embarrassment of offensive riches.

Adding Karlsson to the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang clearly makes Pittsburgh better. The Pens, who missed the final Eastern Conference playoff berth by just a single point, will almost certainly find the postseason field in 2023-24.

However, Pittsburgh fans are not interested in just a playoff appearance. This organization and fan base not only loves watching its team win but takes great pride in them being a league power.

Seeing five championship clubs with homegrown stars like Crosby, Malkin, Mario Lemieux, and Jaromir Jagr over a 35-year span would make most feel the same.

This is the same organization that fired coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero after making five straight postseason appearances, including an Eastern Conference Final bid, between 2010-14.

Those moves turned out well since they netted the Pens arguably the best coach in hockey, Mike Sullivan, and yielded a pair of championships in 2016 and 2017.

The Pens might not be in Cup-or-bust mode, but a get like Karlsson will organically raise expectations, just as it raised money via season-ticket subscriptions.

Did the Karlsson trade make the Penguins superior to the Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils, both the best in the Metro and arguably the class of the East? Does it push them ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs or any team out West?

And while they appear better than the New York Rangers, they still have arguably the league’s best defenseman, Adam Fox, and the top goalie on the planet, Igor Shesterkin, highlighting a superstar-laden lineup that was only good enough for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

New York also went all-in by acquiring aging offensive talents Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, only to be brutally rebuffed in a seven-game series against the Devils. Couldn’t you see the same (or a similar) outcome happening to the Penguins in 2024?

Karlsson has three more seasons on his contract at $10 million per, but the Penguins’ window to win one more title with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang will close in two seasons at most. Crosby and Malkin are both pushing 40 — Sid turned 36 on Aug. 7 — and at some point, their production will tail off.

Pittsburgh probably needs to further upgrade its goaltending and add depth to get in the mix for a championship. It may have the cap space to do so in 2024-25, but can Dubas and Co. count on their core that far into the future?

That remains a huge question, and if the Penguins don’t answer it with a title, you can bet their fan base won’t be nearly as jubilant as they were Sunday.


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times, NHL.com, Sportsnet.ca, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

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