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Capitals Trade Rumblings

Let’s Talk About Erik Karlsson & The Capitals



Washington Capitals
Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

A quarter of the way through the 2022-23 campaign, the Washington Capitals are in trouble. The team is 7-10-3 and off to one of its worst starts in years, and at the same time, the team is struggling to find offense, consistency and success on the blue line while also dealing with a myriad of injuries and a number of pending free agents. With things taking a bit of a nosedive, there are more questions than answers at this point.

Considering all these factors 20 games in, there has been a question raised: how will the Capitals get out of this, and could a big move or change be the key to finding a solution?

With Washington struggling, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman shared some thoughts on the team in his latest edition of 32 Thoughts. He wondered — and clarified that this is not an official report — if the team could not only be interested in Bo Horvat — of course, pending Nicklas Backstrom’s future — but if San Jose Sharks blueliner Erik Karlsson could also make sense for the club. And, at the end of the day, it’s an interesting thought to consider.

Going into the offseason, the Capitals have a number of pending free agents, and every roster defenseman except John Carlson is a pending restricted or unrestricted free agent. Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson and Matt Irwin are UFAs, while Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev are RFAs. Considering the situation and the fact that the blue line hasn’t been clicking very much at all despite stability last season and several changes to the pairings since then, changing up the blue line is definitely an option to consider.

There are several young up-and-coming also waiting for their full-time NHL opportunity, including the likes of Alexeyev, Lucas Johansen, Bobby Nardella and Vincent Iorio. However, at the end of the day, there needs to be experience given there are several top-4 caliber defenders in need of new contracts. While Orlov appears to be a likely candidate to return given his meaning to the D.C. blue line, there’s still uncertainty surrounding other options like Jensen, TVR and Gustafsson, especially with things not going according to plan right now.

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Taking that into account, would Karlsson make sense? Let’s break it down.

Karlsson, who was a star for years in Ottawa and took a bit of a dip in San Jose, has gotten back to Norris form this season with the Sharks. Through 20 games, he has 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points, and he is making great plays, logging heavy minutes and playing several different roles. Washington already has another Karlsson-type defender on the roster in Carlson, who plays the same role and is more known for his offensive acumen than his defensive play. The same can be said for Karlsson, but this season, his defensive play has been more sound, suggesting that the 6-0 190-pound blueliner could be returning to the form that made him a top pick and one of the league’s top defensemen over the course of the 2010s.

The Capitals also need some more depth on the right side. After TVR, the only RHD in the system close to the NHL is Iorio, and he is just now playing in his first pro season down with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. So, having another top RHD with All-Star ability who can also change the look of the power play and provide more depth and a different look to the blue line would be good to have. Plus, having two veteran RHD could help when it comes to injecting more youth on the blue line, as they could mesh well with the likes of the younger influx of LHD like Johansen waiting to make the jump. Also, Karlsson is a proven leader and can be a positive voice in the room.

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It would be a gamble, though. Karlsson has an annual cap hit of $11.5 million over the next four seasons. That, and Carlson’s cap hit of $8 million through 2026, would be a lot to spend on two RHD, but then again, it could lead to a different look on the power play and even give a new look to the blue line. Still, the team would have to have enough cap space, so it would have to work to not only address the other free agents but work with regard to the injuries up front because once Backstrom and Tom Wilson return, their salaries would have a major impact on the cap. And, as mentioned, a move like this would also eat a lot of cap space, which would allow for little wiggle room when it comes to rebuilds or major changes, especially because Karlsson also has a NMC.

The core is also aging, and the Stanley Cup window is closing. Washington has the second-oldest roster in the league this season (behind the Pittsburgh Penguins), and as evident from some games so far this season, younger teams have shown they play a much faster and all-around stronger game than the Capitals. So, bringing in Karlsson, who will be 37 when his deal ends, wouldn’t necessarily go with the plan of making the roster younger, but it could add a “win now” factor to the club.

Still, a move for Karlsson would also mean that the Capitals would have to give some things up. A name like that may lead to picks or prospects going the other way, and that may not be something that Washington just doesn’t want to give up as the team needs to plan for the future. And hypothetically speaking, nothing hypothetically rules out a Carlson-for-Karlsson trade, but it seems unlikely that it would unfold that way, as it would be a trade for pretty much the same kind of player (not just in name).

Overall, there’d be a lot to consider. It would certainly shake things up and provide a new look, especially on the continually-struggling power-play and top-4. However, the risks and potential consequences may outweigh the benefits in the short term.