Most around the NHL feel the Pittsburgh Penguins got better on Sunday. If that holds true, it's likely to impact the New York Islanders' playoff chances in an already very competitive Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference.
In a deal that has been termed a "masterclass" or even "wizardry" by new President of Hockey Operations and GM Kyle Dubas, the Pens landed three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson in a three-team trade involving the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens. The former Toronto GM was also able to shed salary cap obligations over the next two seasons.
Pittsburgh gets forward Rem Pitlick, prospect F Dillon Hamaliuk, and the Sharks' 2026 third-round pick. Meanwhile, San Jose gets forwards Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman in return, along with defenseman Jan Rutta and Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2024 (Top-10 protected). The Habs end up with defenseman Jeff Petry, goaltender Casey DeSmith, prospect Nathan Legare, and Pitt's 2025 second-round pick.
The Penguins haven't won a playoff round in five seasons, and last year missed the post-season for the first time since 2006, losing 5-2 to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks at home with a chance to extend their streak in the next to last game of the season. That loss opened the door back for the Islanders, who eliminated the Pens with a win over Montreal in their final game of the regular season. In fact, the Isles won all four games against Pittsburgh last season, the first time they ever swept the Pens in a season-series, leading to them finishing two points ahead of them in the standings.
Winning the news cycle doesn't always lead to winning the trade in the long run, but in acquiring Karlsson, who scored 101 points last season, the most for a defenseman since 1992, Dubas invigorated his roster led by aging stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. The Pens also boast 73-point scorer Jake Guentzel coming off ankle surgery, and 26-goal scorer Reilly Smith, whi was acquired from Vegas for a third-round pick to replace Jason Zucker earlier this summer.
Karlsson's presence doesn't balance their roster, improve their reformed bottom six, or help Tristan Jarry become a more reliable goaltender. The Pens still have issues and remain an unlikely Stanley Cup contender, even if this trade was made to keep that Cup contention window open.
However, if you are an Islanders fan, you were likely rather content where the Pens' roster stood before the trade. Like the Islanders, Pittsburgh was a team that would likely compete for a playoff spot, but given their age, defensive liabilities, and goaltending compared to Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, you'd probably pick the Isles to finish slightly ahead of them in the standings.
Now, you just don't know. They have a chance to be special offensively and on the power play, and while they aren't built for playoff success, you can foresee how the addition of the future Hall-of-Fame defenseman will lead to success during the regular season. Dubas was also to give up relatively little off the current roster to do so. The Pens did part with good but not great defensemen in Petry and Rutta in the move. As a result, they are thin on the back of their blue line with Chad Ruhwedel and Ty Smith, along with two players, Mark Friedman, and Will Butcher, that spent most of the season in the AHL. An injury to either Karlsson or Letang will be hard to overcome for an extended stretch. The 33-year-old Karlsson has missed 97 combined games over the last four -seasons.
The Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils feel like locks for the post-season as the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division. If the Islanders are to return to the playoffs, they'll likely have to finish ahead of either the New York Rangers or the Penguins in the standings. Last season, they needed to win all four against the Pens and get some help to make the playoffs. The margin of error may have gotten even smaller for next season with Karlsson's arrival to the division.