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Erik Karlsson trade grades: How Penguins, Sharks, Canadiens fared in deal

The Penguins landed the big fish in the Erik Karlsson blockbuster, but how did the other teams involved fare?

After months of speculation, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally pulled off the stunning Erik Karlsson trade. It required not just the San Jose Sharks but also the Montreal Canadiens to make this complicated trade actually work, but the reigning Norris Trophy winner is Pittsburgh-bound.

Truthfully, the “grades” for this trade could change over time, but let’s hand out report cards for the Canadiens, Penguins and Sharks as the ink dries on this historic deal.

Erik Karlsson will link up with Sidney Crosby and Co. in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Andreea Cardani/NHLI via Getty Images)
Erik Karlsson will link up with Sidney Crosby and Co. in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Andreea Cardani/NHLI via Getty Images) (NHLI via Getty Images)

Karlsson trade grade for Penguins: A+

Penguins receive: Erik Karlsson, Dillon Hamaliuk, Rem Pitlick, San Jose's 2026 third-round pick.

Before Karlsson haters start foaming at the mouth, this is an A+ trade that may not actually yield A+ results for the Penguins once the puck drops. It’s possible that Karlsson and Kris Letang end up redundant in all of the worst ways. Both are aging players with scary injury histories, their right-handed shots could create stylistic awkwardness, and each player’s defensive weaknesses could nullify or even overtake their offensive offerings.

Despite the potential for the move to blow up in Pittsburgh’s face, the ceiling on a Karlsson trade is incredibly high. Theoretically, Letang and Karlsson could both absorb fewer minutes (especially during the regular season) while more defensive-minded blueliners such as Ryan Graves do more of the dirty work. It’s easy to picture a clever coach like Mike Sullivan getting the most out of Karlsson’s incredible offensive strengths while muting some of those defensive headaches.

Frankly, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the negatives that you forget that Karlsson is the sort of explosive force who can revolutionize the Penguins’ power play and create something out of nothing. If all goes well, Karlsson is exactly what the Penguins have needed when they’ve previously hit a wall.

No doubt about it, Karlsson makes or breaks this trade, especially for the Penguins.

However, by removing all sorts of bad contracts, a high-risk, high-reward trade gets even better, and skews closer to medium or even low risk. It says a lot about Ron Hextall’s era of errors as Penguins GM that this move actually leaves the Penguins younger.

Frankly, it’s easy to imagine the Penguins burning a second- or even a first-rounder to get out of the Mikael Granlund mistake by itself. Instead, they rolled salary-cap challenges (Granlund, Jan Rutta, to an extent Jeff Petry) into a trade price that would have been easy to digest for Karlsson alone.

The Karlsson trade is such a win that it re-contextualizes what initially felt like an underwhelming first offseason for Dubas as Penguins GM. One may still quibble with the specific price tags for Graves and Tristan Jarry, yet it’s a lot easier to picture the Penguins being competitive when you consider not just the additions but also the subtractions.

Remarkably, there’s even room to do more, including aiming for a potential free-agent bargain such as Tomas Tatar.

In the end, maybe the Penguins are so far removed from being a true contender that even a blockbuster Karlsson trade won’t be enough. A team’s already lost a trade by acquiring Karlsson, after all.

Canadiens swoop in as a broker: A

Canadiens receive: Jeff Petry, Casey DeSmith, Nathan Legare, Pittsburgh's 2025 second-round pick.

Like with the Penguins, a nice trade gets even nicer when you consider subtractions, not just additions. Unloading Mike Hoffman’s $4.5-million cap hit largely absorbs how much Petry will cost (post-retention: $4.69 million) for one of Petry's two seasons.

Petry returns as a fan favorite who ideally has some juice left at age 35.

Montreal may hold its nose at Casey DeSmith’s past more readily than others and get some value out of a solid backup.

Greedy folks might want more, but Petry and a second-rounder (plus removing Hoffman) is nifty work. If the Habs trade Petry and/or DeSmith for additional returns down the line, then this is the gift that keeps giving.

One couldn’t blame an excited Montreal fan for viewing this as a smash-and-grab steal.

Karlsson trade grade for Sharks: C-

Sharks receive: Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Jan Rutta, Pittsburgh's 2024 first-round pick.

Rebuilding teams could learn a lot from the Sharks’ many stumbles. One lesson is that timing is absolutely crucial. From the outside, it sure looks like the Sharks failed to trade Karlsson at the optimal moment, which feels similar to not getting a whole lot for Brent Burns last summer.

A Sharks fan stewing about a lack of prime prospects from Burns, Karlsson and even Timo Meier trades wouldn’t just be embittered, they’d be enlightened. There’s only so much you can say to spin the Karlsson trade as an up-front win for the Sharks.

That said, while the Sharks are mucking up the execution part of their rebuild plan, the concept is justified enough that you can start to see some daylight.

This timeline from CapFriendly captures the light at the end of the tunnel: while San Jose’s rewards are limited for the next two seasons, it enjoys huge savings starting in 2025-26 and 2026-27.

The sober view is that the Sharks might as well stink for the next year or two (or three). In 2023-24, the Sharks may very well resemble a strange hockey science experiment.

That experimentation could yield interesting results. Take two players the Sharks added in the Karlsson trade, for instance: both Hoffman (sniping) and Granlund (passing) boast the sort of skills that could shine if used correctly. Theoretically, the Sharks could achieve two “pump-and-dump” trades where they feature each forward and then move them for future assets.

With Hoffman, Granlund and possibly also Rutta, the Sharks could ideally follow the path the Arizona Coyotes took with Shayne Gostisbehere. Arizona received a second-rounder to take on Gostisbehere’s contract, got good production out of him and then flipped “Ghost” to the Hurricanes for an additional third-rounder.

To reiterate: this is an undeniably underwhelming return for Karlsson. Context clarifies that the Sharks didn’t execute well here, but they adhered to a vision of keeping their books cleaner in the long run.

Scroll through their CapFriendly page and you won’t see many salary commitments beyond the next two seasons, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s nightmare deal expires in three years. If they’re smart, they’ll trade Logan Couture, whose $8-million cap hit runs for four more seasons (through 2026-27). Even if they’re saddled with Couture the rest of the way, he joins Tomas Hertl ($8.137 million through 2029-30) as the only real long-term commitments.

So far, the execution hasn’t been there for the Sharks, but the Karlsson trade crystallizes a plan of short-term pain and hopefully long-term gain.

Right now, the Sharks’ pain translates to serious gains for both the Penguins and Canadiens. A lot can change when those teams get their final grades, though.