Erik Karlsson
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

While appealing on the surface, Erik Karlsson does not represent the solution to the New York Rangers immense defensive struggles. 

In many aspects, much has changed for the New York Rangers since the conclusion of their 2018-2019 campaign. While the upper-echelon of the league has been battling it out for Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Blueshirts have been busy making moves.

The rebuild, which was looking like it was going to be quite arduous, turned a corner with the signings of New York’s three Russian prospects and the addition of Adam Fox and either Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes. And, “Oh baby,” how could I forget the return of former goaltender and commentator turned team president: John (J.D.) Davidson?

We haven’t even reached the summer yet and there has been plenty of movement on Broadway. However, let’s not overlook the fact that continuity still exists, especially in one area — the defense.

Similarly to the past few years, Jeff Gorton will have plenty of decisions to make this summer regarding the future of New York’s abysmal back-end. Now he has an experienced sidekick to help him navigate the difficult waters of this rebuild-defining summer.

Here’s what we know already: Lindy Ruff looks like he’ll be back for another crack at fixing this struggling defense, but I don’t have much faith after his two previous failed attempts albeit with relatively weak personnel. Additionally, for the first time in more than a decade, there will even be some competition in the goal-crease for the starting job between the pipes. Henrik’s terrific reign may have come to an end, but will he take a back-seat to his Russian counterparts? We shall see.

The question marks arise when looking at the personnel. David Quinn has a logjam of defensemen that must be dealt with. To start, Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, and Fredrik Claesson are all due for new contracts in the coming months. There is no way that the Rangers can extend all of these guys. The blue-line is crowded enough without Pionk and Claesson, both of whom I’d be willing to let walk as free agents in July. Not including the aforementioned duo, the Blueshirts have up to nine players that will all compete for a spot on the defense next season.

Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Smith, Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, Yegor Rykov and Adam Fox will all be in the running for a position in New York’s top six. Obviously, not all of these youngsters will be NHL-ready next season, yet most are not far off. Don’t forget that Jeff Gorton also has some other exciting defensive prospects that will likely enter the fold in 2020 such as K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. And there are also guys like Sean Day, Joey Keane, Nico Gross, and Tarmo Reunanen that have potential, and are marinating in other leagues across the world.

The Rangers focused on improving their D-core, and it looks like they have probably done it. It just may take a while. Nonetheless, we have not acknowledged the other possible easy-fix solution: Erik Karlsson.

Yes, the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who has scored at least 66 points in each full season he’s played, could become a New York Ranger this summer.

The soon-to-be 29-year-old defenseman is set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. It is extremely rare for a player of Karlsson’s caliber to hit the open market. In my opinion, the 6-foot righty is undoubtedly this era’s top defenseman. His abilities are unmatched across the rest of the league. He’s a smooth-skater, an elite puck-mover, he’s got a high hockey IQ, he boasts a heavy and accurate shot, and he is underrated in his own zone. That’s quite the toolbox.

When healthy, EK65 is electric. He would instantly become New York’s most dynamic skater since Brian Leetch. We saw it first hand in the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Karlsson lit up the Rangers while playing through a barrage of injuries.

But when discussing the former Ottawa Senator, the key word is “healthy.”

Aside from his age, the only thing that would hold me back from going all-in on Karlsson is his nagging injuries. Over the last two regular seasons, the silky-smooth Swede has missed a combined 40 games. His inability to stay on the ice in recent years is worrisome.

If Karlsson can stay on the ice, he will be worth every penny of his upcoming deal that will earn him somewhere in the ballpark of $11 million annually. Even in his “disappointing” 2018-2019 campaign for the San Jose Sharks, Karlsson tallied 45 points in just 53 contests. To put those number in perspective, no Blueshirt blue-liner notched more than 30 points this past season.

There are no doubts about Karlsson’s skills or effectiveness. He’s a beast when in the lineup. I’ve yet to even mention his power-play prowess. However, the combination of old age and an injury history may drive GMs away from arguably the league’s top defenseman.

It’d be hard to pass on an opportunity to acquire a generational talent like Karlsson. But that might be what makes the most sense for the Rebuilding Rangers.

It has been long rumored that Karlsson would be interested in playing at the world’s most famous arena alongside his fellow countrymen in Henrik Lundqvist. For this reason, it’s definitely possible that the former 15th overall pick could take a discount to come to the Big Apple.

New York Rangers

However, my concern with number 65 is more about the term of his contract than his salary. Yes, a luxury of the Blueshirts’ newfound youth is that it gives them plenty of cap-flexibility going forward. But with New York’s current salary-cap situation, Jeff Gorton would still need to clear out enough cap-space for Karlsson and other free agents by trading away depth pieces and buying out one of his overpaid defensemen. Even by doing this, the downside is that it would put the Blueshirts in a position where they would need to bridge all of their pending restricted free agents in order to keep them. This would ultimately place a lot of pressure on the team to win-now while their top prospects are still on their first or second contracts.

Signing a defenseman through his mid-30s is always risky, but there are reasons that a Karlsson contract could make sense in this instance. If the game-changing blue-liner would be willing to accept a short-term deal and a serious discount that would bring him to Broadway, then the Rangers should think about pulling the trigger. This is highly unlikely though.

The problems revolve around signing Karlsson to a long-term deal. The Rangers could take a risk and break the bank for him with the hopes that they will be awarded an amnesty buyout upon the arrival of the league’s Seattle expansion team. This is similar to what they did with Brad Richards in 2011. Yet even that might not make sense with the current landscape of the roster.

Of course, let’s not forget that the repercussions of signing Karlsson would be that it would also pretty much eliminate New York from the Artemi Panarin sweepstakes.

Jeff Gorton and John Davidson’s best option would be to first take a run at Panarin. He’s younger than Karlsson, and he’s equally impactful. If Panarin ends up elsewhere, Karlsson could serve as a backup plan, but it’s all about finding the right term and the right price.

Sure, adding a bonafide stud could result in a quicker road back to playoff contention. But it crucial not to overlook the fact that it could also lead to years of salary-cap-hell in the not so distant future.

The days of Glen Sather are behind us. No more near-sighted splurges are necessary. It’s time to stay the course and rebuild from within.

John Davidson has already won over the Garden Faithful with his on-ice heroics and his comments from the booth. Now can he do the same from the front office?

Only time will tell.

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