June 25, 2024

When general manager Kyle Dubas orchestrated his inaugural significant move with the Pittsburgh Penguins, acquiring defenseman Erik Karlsson in a trade involving the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens, the anticipation was for Karlsson to bolster the Penguins’ roster for another deep playoff run, especially given the team’s aging core.

However, nearing the two-thirds mark of the 2023-24 season, the Penguins find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture, trailing by nine points for a wildcard spot. This predicament has prompted reflection within the organization, considering their future direction. Compounding the situation is Karlsson’s performance, which has fallen short of the lofty expectations set for him as a Penguin, despite being awarded the 2023 Norris Trophy for the NHL’s best defenseman.

The pressing question now is whether Dubas harbors regrets over the Karlsson acquisition, given the circumstances.

In August, a significant three-team trade involving the Penguins, Sharks, and Canadiens transpired, resulting in the exchange of nine players and three draft picks. The Penguins relinquished forwards Mikael Granlund (to San Jose) and Nathan Legare (to Montreal), defensemen Jeff Petry (to Montreal) and Jan Rutta (to San Jose), along with goaltender Casey DeSmith (to Montreal). However, the performances of these players with their new teams have been underwhelming, with both Petry and DeSmith subsequently traded to Detroit and Vancouver, respectively.

In return, the Penguins acquired 33-year-old Karlsson, forward Dillon Hamaliuk, and Rem Pitlick. Among these acquisitions, only Karlsson has significantly impacted the team, while Pitlick was later traded to Chicago, and Hamaliuk has predominantly played in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers. Additionally, the Penguins obtained a 2026 third-round pick from the Sharks.

However, the trade’s potential drawbacks and uncertainties for Dubas lie in the fact that they also traded a 2024 first-round pick to the Sharks. This pick is top-10 protected, implying that if the Penguins secure a top-10 selection this year, they retain the pick. Otherwise, they would relinquish their 2025 first-round pick to the Sharks instead. Presently, the Penguins are projected to pick at number 13. Considering their relatively low standing in the league’s farm system rankings, losing a first-round pick at this juncture is a significant setback for the team.

At the outset of the regular season, with the Penguins holding the title of the league’s oldest team with an average age of 30.6, Dubas pinned his hopes on Karlsson’s potential to replicate or at least mirror his performance from the previous season when he clinched the Norris Trophy. The aim was for Karlsson to seamlessly integrate with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and the rest of the established roster.

However, this aspiration hasn’t materialized as expected this season. While there have been glimpses of the team’s anticipated prowess, the overall performance has fallen short of expectations. This shortfall is particularly evident in the team’s lackluster power play success, a domain where they were anticipated to excel given the talent pool, including Karlsson, Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust.

Despite boasting a lineup rich in offensive capabilities, both power play units have struggled significantly this season. The Penguins currently rank 30th in the NHL for power play success, with a mere 13.9% conversion rate. Karlsson, renowned for his prowess on the power play with 231 career power-play points prior to joining Pittsburgh, has encountered difficulties in this regard throughout the season.

Penguins & Kyle Dubas Already Regretting Karlsson Trade

Karlsson’s defensive performance for the Penguins this season has also been lackluster, despite not being widely recognized as a top-tier defensive defenseman throughout his career. He has encountered difficulties in his own zone, including struggles with clearing the puck and committing costly turnovers that result in extended offensive pressure from opponents.

While Karlsson has amassed a respectable total of 41 points, placing him 14th among all defensemen this season, his on-ice contributions have failed to justify his hefty $10 million salary owed to him by the Penguins through the 2026-27 season. This, coupled with the team’s overall lack of success, has placed Dubas and the organization in a challenging position.

Adding to their predicament is the impending free agency of Jake Guentzel, the 30-year-old forward. Negotiating an extension for Guentzel amidst financial constraints and the loss of a first-round draft pick, either this year or the next, has further complicated matters for the Penguins. Considering these factors, the organization may explore the possibility of trading Guentzel, who is likely to garner interest from multiple teams, in a bid to replenish their lost draft assets. As a result, Guentzel’s future with the Penguins remains uncertain at this juncture.

The trade, initially envisioned as a catalyst for one final major push for the Penguins’ core, has not unfolded according to Dubas’s or the organization’s aspirations. Instead, it carries the potential to impede their progress both in the immediate and long-term future. The aging players in the roster, nearing the twilight of their careers, coupled with the lack of promising prospects or assets to bolster the team’s depth, exacerbate concerns about sustaining competitiveness beyond the current season.

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