By signing free agent center John Tavares, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the summer and became the betting favorite to win the 2019 Stanley Cup.
But there is still one looming move this summer that could reset the odds again. Offensive defenseman Erik Karlsson seems destined to move from Ottawa to a contending team, either the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vegas Golden Knights or Dallas Stars — with the Lightning leading the bidding.
Karlsson has scored 355 points since 2013-14, most among NHL defensemen. He scored 62 points in 71 games last season while still recovering from major ankle surgery.
The Senators are in full rebuild mode under penurious ownership. Karlsson could command $11 million or more per season on his next contract and it’s hard to imagine him getting top dollar in Ottawa.
With Karlsson a year away from unrestricted free agency, the smart Senators’ play is to trade him now rather than lose him for nothing in the marketplace — as the New York Islanders did with Tavares.
CAN LIGHTNING STRIKE?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a serious contender as is. But adding Karlsson to a defense that already includes his buddy Victor Hedman, one of the league’s top all-around defenders, could make that team a juggernaut.
Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman believes he could make his salary cap work even with another big addition. Karlsson carries a $6.5 million cap number for next season, then his money could jump more than $4 million the following season when he gets his next deal.
Yzerman would likely have to offer young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to make this trade happen. Sergachev, who has two years left on his entry-level contract, became just the third teenage defensemen to produce a 40-point season since 2000.
The Senators would certainly want young center Brayden Point in that deal, but Yzerman would prefer to keep that emerging star to help balance his budget. Some experts wonder if a three-way trade involving the New York Rangers could satisfy all parties, since the Rangers have the space to take on some Lightning salary.
The Lightning would also have to shed money for this season and down the road, with Ryan Callahan ($5.8 million cap hit the next two seasons) and Tyler Johnson ($5 million for the next six years) as obvious targets.
THE APPEAL OF VEGAS
The Golden Knights played for the Cup last season, so they are a serious contender heading into next season. But adding Karlsson — the NHL’s best puck-rushing defenseman — would reaffirm that they are not a one-and-done title threat.
At the NHL trade deadline the Golden Knights nearly landed Karlsson. General manager George McPhee is revisiting the possibility this summer.
He has a good young defenseman to potentially offer the Senators in Shea Theodore. Perhaps he could offer up emerging winger Alex Tuch as well.
McPhee also has the salary cap space to accept Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan in that trade and either absorb his $7.25 million salary cap hit for the next four seasons or take the buyout loss.
Tampa Bay, in particular, lacks the cap space to take on Ryan.
DALLAS WOULD LIKE TO ADD ANOTHER STAR
After missing the playoffs last season, the Stars entered the summer marketplace aggressively. The team brought potential 20-goal scoring winger Valeri Nichushkin back from the KHL on a two-year deal.
The Stars bid on Tavares and Dallas was one of six teams invited to make an in-person pitch. After Tavares chose Toronto, Stars GM Jim Nill shifted his attention to Karlsson.
Surely the Senators will want defenseman Miro Heiskanen, the third overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. Nill would rather put defenseman Julius Honka in the trade package.
But would the possibility of having Karlsson and star forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn together for a few Cup runs convince him to pay the price?
Should the Stars land Karlsson, they would move from the perimeter of the Cup race to strong contention for the title.
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