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Erik Karlsson Deal Underscores the Reality of a Still Highly-Competitive Metropolitan Division

Taking a glance at the landscape the Devils will face in the Metropolitan after the 2023 Norris Trophy-winner lands in Pittsburgh.

New Jersey Devils v San Jose Sharks Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday delivered an August earthquake to the sleepiest part of the NHL offseason with their acquisition of Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks in a three-team deal. Karlsson, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, is coming off a fantastic season on a truly dreadful Sharks team and looked perhaps as good as he ever has in 2022-23. Given the team he was on, though, he only really accomplished making the Sharks draft position worse than it otherwise would have been without him. Karlsson’s renaissance over the past two seasons has made his contract much more palatable than it was looking in a couple of down seasons after its signing, but the Sharks, now staring down a painful rebuilding process, didn’t really have much reason left to pay a guy $11.5M to help them finish with 60 standings points instead of 50.

The smoke that had been billowing around the possibility of Karlsson getting traded for months finally paid off with some long-awaited fire with the big-ticket defenseman moving to Pittsburgh in one of the more complex NHL trades you will see. Looking at the final breakdown of the trade, you can see why it took so long to make happen. Karlsson’s large contract meant that any team with an actual reason to acquire him was going to have to do some gymnastics to get him and stay under the salary cap ceiling. Montreal was brought in as a third team to facilitate the deal and take on some of the contracts the Penguins needed to shed (Jeff Petry, Casey DeSmith) while Pittsburgh jettisoned some problem contracts (Mikael Granlund, Jan Rutta) over to San Jose to clear the rest of the money needed. The Penguins sent a protected first-round pick over to San Jose (and a second to Montreal) for their trouble, extending their mortgage on the future with their seventh traded first-round pick in the past decade. Some other pieces moved around with Mike Hoffman also getting dumped to the Sharks from Montreal and depth forward Rem Pitlick heading to Pittsburgh, but when the dust settled, the big takeaway was that the Penguins added one of the best blueliners in the league in response to their first playoff miss in 16 years.

This being a Devils blog, though, I only care about the Penguins insofar as how their actions affect the Devils. The Metropolitan Division has been a tough environment to win hockey games for a little while now, but with the Penguins and the Capitals seeming to finally relinquish their perpetual grip on a pair of playoff spots last season, the path through to the postseason started to look a bit wider. For the Capitals, that may remain the case, but the Penguins are taking another big swing here with the Crosby/Malkin/Letang trio nearing their twilights and are likely to be firmly in the mix with Karlsson now in the fold. The Penguins also didn’t give up a lot of substantive contributors from their 2022-23 team to get him, either, with Jeff Petry—a decent-enough middle-pairing offensive guy—being the most notable loss.

The trade for Karlsson will likely make the world of pain inbound for the Penguins at the conclusion of the Crosby/Malkin Era a notch more severe, but they clearly only really care about the season(s) immediately in front of them at this point, and in those it makes them much more dangerous. Karlsson has well-documented flaws in his own end as a defender, but he may be one of the very best offensive forces from the blue line in the history of the game. There were a couple of years in San Jose where it looked like he had lost a step, but he seems to have found it in the past couple years in a big way. The Penguins are a flawed team, but Malkin and (especially) Crosby are still playing at high levels and adding a player that was so good that he made an absolutely putrid Sharks team a breakeven squad when he was on the ice at 5v5 (in almost 1,700 minutes!) makes them impossible to ignore as a potential factor.

Given the impact of this trade, let’s take a quick look at the landscape of the Metro and break teams into tiers in terms of likely expectations:

Tier 1: The Favorites

Carolina Hurricanes

New Jersey Devils

I don’t think this is a particularly controversial take, but the two teams who seem best positioned at this moment are the Devils and the team they fell to in this past season’s second round of the playoffs. The Devils have a young team filled with lots of really good players just entering their primes and the Hurricanes remain one of the league’s most suffocating and structured teams. With the recent playoff tilt, the matchup’s history, some simmering bad blood, and the Canes adding some, uh, interesting personalities this offseason, this has a lot of ingredients for a budding (and volatile) modern rivalry.

Tier 2: Flawed, but Dangerous

Pittsburgh Penguins

New York Rangers

I think prior to the Karlsson deal, I likely would have had the Penguins in the next category but adding the reigning Norris Trophy winner is a bit of a game-changer. The Penguins could be even more of a feast-or-famine team than they were this past season, given the particular brand of run-and-gun hockey Karlsson fosters, but they have top-of-the-lineup talent that stacks up with just about anyone, even as those guys get older. The question as always will be the depth, and whether the Penguins can stop the bleeding enough when the big guys are off the ice to stay afloat. The goaltending is also still a shaky proposition in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, over in Manhattan, the Rangers are slightly less aged than the Penguins, but are a similarly top-heavy operation who were hoping to have more solid cornerstones to rely on for torch-passing purposes. Even with Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere not looking like the spiritual heirs to Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin the team was hoping for, though, they have an elite top d-man and enough firepower to hurt teams while letting goalie Igor Shesterkin take care of the rest. As long as Shersterkin is between the pipes and a few of the big guns remain firing, they are undoubtedly a major factor in the Metro.

Tier 3: The Cagey Veteran Outfits

New York Islanders

Washington Capitals

These squads found themselves on opposite sides of the playoff bubble last season but both have some similarities as veteran-powered dark horses in the division. The Capitals are an old, old squad at this point and it doesn’t really seem like a lot of help is on the way, but I think there’s still enough talent duct-taped together here to make them a potential factor. They could really use a big bounce back from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had a disastrous 2022-23, but with Ovechkin still pouring in goals and a team that was firmly in the mix halfway through last season, it’s hard to fully bury them just yet. If this season fizzles, they’re probably kaput, though.

The Islanders are better positioned than the Caps, but they are also firmly pot-committed with a roster that is fine but lacks truly elite talent outside of perhaps their own crease. Ilya Sorokin will be the great equalizer and the Islanders can probably do enough otherwise to grind their way into the mix for the playoffs again. They are going to need more out of Mat Barzal based on his salary and the story is similar for Bo Horvat as both of them are just about to start eight-year deals that will take them all the way into their mid-thirties. There are a wide range of outcomes for the Isles and certainly they have put a lot of eggs in a fairly mid basket here but if things go right, they can be a problem for everyone.

Tier 4: They’re Trying to Be Good but Probably Won’t Succeed

Columbus Blue Jackets

The new home of our friend Damon Severson was one of the worst teams in the league last year, but given the presence of Johnny Gaudreau, the hopeful return of Zach Werenski, and [trails off mumbling] they decided to go out and add some significant veteran pieces this offseason to revamp the defense. Severson arrives along with Ivan Provorov to go along with a returning Werenski to form a theoretically respectable defensive corps (maybe with a promoted David Jiricek?). Gaudreau and Patrik Laine are there to score some goals but the situation at forward is pretty, pretty iffy. Adam Fantilli is the big hope for the future down the middle here, and maybe him and Kent Johnson someday make a good one-two punch but there are a lot of holes on this roster the kids won’t immediately fix and the goaltending won’t be covering many mistakes, either.

Tier 5: They’re Trying to Be Bad, and Almost Certainly Will Succeed

Philadelphia Flyers

If Sean Couturier has any setbacks from his back injury, this team’s 1C will be... Morgan Frost? And the defense might actually be significantly worse. Rename the Jack Adams after Torts if this team lands in the area code of the playoff bubble.

The biggest thing the Karlsson deal does is push the Penguins back toward being a team that has at least some outside shot as a contender in the East, rather than a bubble squad still scraping along on the playoff threshold. That’s a flawed roster in Pittsburgh still, but it’s hard to ignore the level of talent. The Devils remain a team that is going to get a lot of love in season previews and probably a few trendy Stanley Cup picks, but they are going to have a tough division to get through if they intend to make good on those growing expectations.

The Hurricanes, Rangers, Penguins, Islanders, and Capitals are each all-in on the squads they have and will be pushing hard to not be left without a chair when the music stops. Even Columbus could be a thorn in everyone’s side if some of their young guys pop. So, the Devils may not have a massive amount of wiggle room if they, for instance, run into more injury trouble than they did last season. They’re starting from a squad that finished with 112 points, and perhaps improved their roster from that starting point, but nothing is guaranteed in the NHL, where things are always on a knife’s edge (see the 49 point improvement for the Devils between 2021-22 and 2022-23, for instance). The Metro typically looks tough, and while opinions can vary on Karlsson, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t just get a little bit tougher.