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2 Ways to Look at Who Won the Erik Karlsson Trade



Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Credit: Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire

How does Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, Olaf Kolzig, Ray Whitney, and Saku Koivu sound? And what does this have to do with the San Jose Sharks’ trade for Erik Karlsson?

Besides Carson and Gelinas, the Kings sent their 1989, 1991, and 1993 first-round picks to the Edmonton Oilers in August 1988.

In 1989, Edmonton dealt their first-round pick to New Jersey for Corey Foster. The Devils selected Jason Miller 18th overall. One pick later, the Washington Capitals nabbed 2000 Vezina Trophy winner Ollie the Goalie.

In 1991, the Oilers drafted Martin Rucinsky with the 21st-overall selection. Three picks later, the San Jose Sharks bit on Whitney, who put up a career 1,064 points.

In 1993, Edmonton scooped up Nick Stajduhar at No. 16, passing up Finnish star Koivu by five spots.

Remarkably, this imaginary haul still doesn’t equate post-prime Gretzky, who managed seven All-Star Team appearances after the trade — Carson, Gelinas, Kolzig, Whitney, and Koivu combined for two over their entire careers — but it’s a whole lot better than Carson, Gelinas, Foster, Rucinsky, and Stajduhar, right?

This is a long way of saying that there are two equally important ways to judge a trade: Was it a good trade at the time? Was it a good trade in hindsight?

At the time, the Gretzky trade looked, charitably, bad for the Oilers. They were trading the 27-year-old eight-time Hart Trophy winner, Mike Krushelnyski, and Marty McSorley for Carson, Gelinas, and three presumably late first-rounders. It actually turned out worse for the Oilers, as 19-year-old 50-goal scorer Carson peaked at 19, and they wasted two of those three first-round picks.

It was a bad trade at the time and in hindsight — even realistic “best case scenario” alternate history draft picks couldn’t save it.

At the time, the Karlsson trade looked, charitably, bad for the Ottawa Senators. They were trading the 28-year-old four-time Norris Trophy finalist and Francis Perron for Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, Dylan DeMelo, and Josh Norris, a presumably late 2019 or 2020 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick, and a conditional 2021 second-round pick (condition was met).

Karlsson isn’t Gretzky, and there wasn’t even anything close to a “sure thing” like Carson — the second teenager, after Gretzky, to score 50 goals in a season — on the way to Ottawa.

But the difference right now between the Gretzky and Karlsson blockbusters? History — not alternate history — appears to be breaking the trade in the Senators’ favor, prompting tweets like this:

An aside about this tweet: As many have pointed out, Karlsson has played 43 less games than Chris Tierney to earn the same number of points.

And to equate a forward and a defenseman’s production is a stretch: Case in point, an average forward in 2019-20 scored 22 points, while an average defenseman scored 14 points. Essentially, for every 11 points an average forward registered, an average defenseman posted seven.

So if Karlsson was a forward and had played as many games as Tierney the last two seasons? Instead of the .78 Points Per Game that he averaged as a defenseman, extrapolated, Karlsson would’ve averaged 1.23 Points Per Game as a forward. Over 152 games, that’s 187 points for Karlsson and 85 for Tierney. Even capping Karlsson at 109 contests — the number that he actually played — that’s 134 points for Karlsson.

It’s quick-and-dirty math, nothing to take as gospel, but it’s an illustration of how much more productive, relatively, Karlsson has been than Tierney.

But of course, this trade wasn’t a Karlsson-for-Tierney one-for-one swap.

San Jose Sharks fans should brace themselves for the strong possibility that the Sens will win this trade in the long run. There are legitimate questions about Karlsson’s long-term viability as an elite defenseman, the “presumably late” 2019 or 2020 San Jose first-round pick turned out to be the third-overall selection of the 2020 Draft, Norris is on the cusp of being a solid middle-six center in the years to come, and Tierney is already a solid middle-six center. We’ll see what Rudolf Balcers, Mads Søgaard (the 2019 second-round pick), Leevi Merilainen (the prospect that Ottawa drafted with the third-pick they acquired from Winnipeg for Dylan DeMelo), and the 2021 second-round pick offer.

But ultimately, if Tim Stuetzle lives up to the hype, it’ll be a challenge for the aging Karlsson to “win” this trade for the San Jose Sharks.

That said, I wouldn’t count Karlsson out — he might not be Gretzky, but like “The Great One,” there’s reason to believe that generational talent will beat back time and all the Tierneys and Stuetzles of the world.

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