Hartnett: Risks, Rewards To Rangers Signing Erik Karlsson


The Erik Karlsson watch has officially begun after the San Jose Sharks were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.

For roughly a decade, the electrifying defenseman has skated in a class of his own. No defenseman in the NHL does a better job of turning defense into offense. Karlsson not only excels at carrying the puck across three zones and hitting teammates with stretch passes, but he is also a master of preventing opposition rushes and taking away passing lanes.

The Rangers’ biggest offseason need is finding an unquestioned no. 1 defenseman to lead the way. Put Karlsson in a blue shirt and he immediately transforms who the Rangers are and how they play. Life will suddenly be easier for Henrik Lundqvist because his countryman spends 25 minutes per night dominating the ice territorially.

There could not be a more obvious fit. If the Rangers are serious about accelerating the rebuild and want to see their star goaltender competing for the Stanley Cup, signing Karlsson should be the top priority.

Yet, there is a tremendous risk that comes with signing the world’s greatest defenseman. Injuries limited Karlsson’s ability to perform at his highest level throughout the 2018-19 season. Sharks’ head coach Peter DeBoer stated that the 28-year-old blueliner was only healthy for six weeks of the season.

Karlsson missed Game 6 and was unable to help his team stave off elimination due to a groin injury. The same injury played havoc during his first season in San Jose, causing him to miss 17 consecutive games during the stretch run.

Any team looking to sign Karlsson must be willing to pay him an eight-figure salary, though a history of injuries and surgeries could cause teams to be hesitant to commit a Drew Doughty-like $11 million cap hit.

The Rangers have seen firsthand the deterioration of Kevin Shattenkirk’s play over the past two seasons after signing the offensive-defenseman to a four-year, $26.6 million contract two summers ago. A torn meniscus cut his first season at The Garden short. Year two was interrupted by a separated shoulder. When Shattenkirk returned, he struggled to make the expected impact on the power play. He was the Rangers’ leading defenseman in power play minutes at 177:24 – but he only contributed seven power-play points. That’s quite a dip from his 20-26 typical power play point output during his St. Louis heyday.

The wear and tear of 25-minute nights, surgeries and a loss of foot speed contribute to the downfall of defensemen as they near age 30. Shattenkirk (30), Brendan Smith (30) and alternate captain Marc Staal (32) have regressed with age. The Rangers bought out Dan Girardi at age 33 in 2017 with three years left on his contract.

Looking back further, the Rangers signed a 31-year-old Wade Redden to a six-year, $39 million deal in 2008 and soon regretted what would become an all-time bad contract. After two seasons of underwhelming play, Redden was eventually buried in the minors for two seasons before exercising an accelerated compliance buyout.

Any team prepared to ink Karlsson to a seven-year deal will do so knowing that there’s a chance that they’re going to get burned on the back end of the contract. The example of Nicklas Lidstrom winning the Norris Trophy seven times from ages 31 to 41 is a rarity. Most defensemen begin to slip around age 30.

That said, Karlsson is the finest defenseman of his generation. If the Rangers sign him, there’s definitely going to be a chance of great rewards – but they’re also taking on a big risk.

Former team president general manager Glen Sather liked to swing for the fences. Shattenkirk was Jeff Gorton’s first big gamble. Now, with John Davidson added to the Blueshirts’ brain trust, the Rangers will have to think carefully about the risks and rewards that come with a Karlsson megadeal.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey