For over a year the trading of Erik Karlsson has been the fixation of the entire hockey world. Much to the malign of Ottawa Senators fans, many of whom would rather just pay Erik Karlsson the amount of money he clearly deserves instead of low-balling him out of town. And yet, here we are. The beginning of a long offseason that includes the beginning of Erik Karlsson’s final year of his contract. And even though Pierre Dorion gave his word that he wouldn’t move Karlsson, it’s his job to listen. But not to the fans, mind you, to his fellow GM’s. However, he clearly hasn’t been paying attention. There is a strikingly similar case study on why trading your best player won’t work out in the end.
Ask Marc Bergevin. Over the past two seasons, the Canadiens have felt the absence of P.K. Subban, a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman of high acclaim, who was traded in a one for one deal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Shea Weber. At the time, this seemed like a mistake. P.K., much like Karlsson, had endeared himself to the Montreal community. He was adored by the fans, and he even pledged to donate $10 Million to the local children’s hospital. P.K. had burst onto the scene in the NHL as a defenseman with an explosive shot, and just as explosive skating who often had a knack for scoring big goals. He was abruptly traded shortly before his contract extension kicked in for Shea Weber.
This is where I tell you that Shea Weber is not a bad player. That is because he isn’t. Shea Weber is an all-world defenseman that I would gladly have on my team any day. The only issue that anyone should have had is this: I wouldn’t trade my best player for him. P.K. Subban was undoubtedly the best defenseman on the Habs, and at the time he was traded, he was just 26 years old. Weber was 30 years old and has a contract with massive implications if he were to retire early. The personification of diminishing returns, Weber has since been injury prone and the Habs have had one first-round exit, and one bottom of the league finish. P.K. and the Predators have been to the Stanley Cup Final in year one, and are on the cusp of at least making the conference semi-finals this year with a 3–1 series lead on the Colorado Avalanche.
I am not saying that he alone would turn around the Montreal Canadiens. What I am saying is that P.K. is a special player that is built to play the modern game, much like Erik Karlsson. The way P.K. thinks on the ice, the way he can skate, the way he can shoot, the way he can score, pass, kill penalties, run the power-play. P.K. is a young defenseman that does everything and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The fact that he was traded should be a blight on the Canadiens franchise for years to come, and so far, it has been. I’m sure the same will be said of Erik Karlsson when he gets traded. I hope I’m wrong, I hope he doesn’t, because a franchise #1 defenseman is a rare and invaluable asset in today’s league.
The Edmonton Oilers made the same mistake when they traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, which was a trade that worked out in the short-term. The Oilers made the conference semi-finals atop a 100+ point season, while the Devils missed the playoffs and Taylor Hall struggled. This season, however, the Oilers are a bottom-five lottery team, and Taylor Hall, with an adequate supporting cast, willed the Devils into the playoffs and is now in consideration for the Hart Trophy. Needless to say, there was an equally inane trade made the following offseason where Jordan Eberle ended up in Long Island on John Tavares’s wing, and Ryan Strome struggled to put up 30 points. These kinds of trades rarely work out for the team giving up talent, specifically because it is impossible to guarantee that kind of return, and it is even harder to guarantee an Erik Karlsson-sized return.
Trading a franchise player often doesn’t work out well in retrospect. It works out even worse when, as a franchise, you are clinging to dear life in the midst of the staggering economy of the city of Ottawa. The Senators are hemorrhaging, and make no mistake, there will not be another Erik Karlsson in the pipeline. Do you put your eggs in the draft lottery basket, and hope you land the 1st overall pick in Rasmus Dahlin? If you do land Dahlin, are you confident that he can step in and become the next Erik Karlsson? Are you comfortable putting that weight on an 18-year old’s shoulders? Are you familiar with Nail Yakupov, or better yet, Alexandre Daigle?
So we circle back, and Pierre Dorion will be faced with an almost impossible and career-altering decision. Will he trade Erik Karlsson? Will he simply do nothing and wait out the clock on his contract? Hope he gets the 1st overall pick? Will Eugene Melnyk force his hand into making a terrible decision? Whatever comes next, the future of the Senators hangs in the balance, and there is a right answer; Don’t trade your best player.