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The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I would argue that’s how Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas sees his new-look roster after the acquisition of 33-year-old Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson on Sunday. And owing to a sizable cap hit ($11.5 million through the 2026-27 regular season), the Penguins didn’t have to give up much to the San Jose Sharks for his services in the three-team trade.

For the rebuilding Sharks, relieving themselves of Karlsson’s contract was the primary objective, and finding a trade partner in a cap-constrained environment proved to be difficult.

Adding Karlsson’s contract is inherently risky, but Pittsburgh is in a unique position. They are in an organizational twilight of contention, in large part because their three-headed monster – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang – are all 36 or older. And while each player can still be immensely impactful on the ice, none of Pittsburgh’s core resemble their peaks of 10 years ago. It’s not a slight, it’s the reality of Father Time. The same can be said for some newer faces in the lineup too, including 38-year-old centre Jeff Carter and 32-year-old winger Reilly Smith.

Read through that, and it makes Karlsson feel like the spring chicken on the roster. But that’s why Pittsburgh is a uniquely interesting fit for Karlsson. With Crosby and Malkin in particular still in tow, selling a rebuild right now would be nearly impossible. But without bolstering the lineup, we know what this Penguins team looks like – a little too slow, a little too leaky, and a fringe playoff team that has been running the treadmill of mediocrity for years.

That brings me to Karlsson and the fit in Pittsburgh. Make no mistake, Dubas is betting hard on one specific component: that Karlsson can enhance and illuminate a player like Crosby (or Malkin), still one of the most impactful forwards in the game when given the opportunity.

We already know there is some truth to this argument. Consider just the performance of Crosby with and without the puck-moving Letang on the ice over the last few years – a similar player to Karlsson, but a weaker one. The results are shockingly different, and it should be noted that expected goals follow a similar path:

 

The daylight in these numbers is the difference between a high-end playoff team (Crosby and Letang on the ice together) and one fighting for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.

Let’s flip it on its head and look at Karlsson. The three-time Norris Trophy winner’s resume speaks for itself, but he’s had a roller coaster of a career. Whether it’s the injury history that impeded his play for a few years or the perennially bad rosters he’s headlined, little has come easy.

There’s no better way to illustrate this than what we observed last season – a Norris winner coming from one of the worst teams in the NHL. There’s only one way to accomplish that feat:

San Jose was unwatchable for most of the season, finishing -87 goals underwater and ensuring a healthy multi-year rebuild would be put into effect by general manager Mike Grier.

To that end, I’d argue trading Karlsson was a necessity not just for the salary cap relief, but also for removing any goodness remaining across that lineup. When Karlsson was on the ice last season, the Sharks were a playoff-calibre team. For an organization whose primary goal in the upcoming season is likely to win the draft lottery, those two components mix like oil and water.

So, that’s the bet Dubas is making here. An aging core that may have a year or two left to contend, but one that’s now armed with the most prolific puck-mover of this millennium. The contractual side may get nasty long term for the Penguins, but they have materially shifted the playoff landscape in a competitive Eastern Conference.

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hokey

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