(Photo Credit: Michael Miller)
The 2017-2018 season was an abysmal one for the Ottawa Senators, a team that came within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final last year.
After a hot start, the team failed to maintain any sort of positive qualities to their play, brining the future of many members of the organization into question. From the first domino to fall, Kyle Turris being sent away - with a strong belief the trade was only because owner Eugene Melnyk didn’t want to pay him an extension - to, fittingly, the #MelnykOut campaign, to the uncertainty around the future of Guy Boucher, there are many more questions around the future of the Senators organization than there are answers.
One of the biggest of these questions, and the one the fanbase want answered most, is where Erik Karlsson will be playing over the next 18 months, and what the answer to this question will mean for the Ottawa Senators.
Should he stay or go?
Realistically, there are four possible outcomes, each with drastically different repercussions for the team from Canada’s capital.
In an absolute worst case scenario, the team could see history repeat itself and watch possibly the greatest player their franchise has ever seen join another team with nothing in return. After Daniel Alfredsson ended his career with one season as a Detroit Red Wing, the speculation behind his reason for leaving ran wild. Many believe a bitter email from Eugene Melnyk, berating Alfredsson for not taking a discount on a contract extension, was the final straw that chased the superstar out of the city he had been in for 17 seasons. As Melnyk has already spoken publicly about how the team cannot afford to pay Karlsson what he’s worth, losing him for nothing is shockingly still a possibility if they can’t negotiate a deal before the start of the season.
Of course, there are also two trade options that the Senators could consider. With the entire hockey world knowing the Senators are trying to move one of the greatest players in the league, there will be no shortage of teams at least kicking the tires on a possible trade for the All Star.
With these possibilities, the Sens front office will have a choice: a trade to set them up to win now, or a trade to build for the future.
In trading to win now, the Senators would need to rely heavily on the youthful talent they have in their pipeline to fill in for a future Hall of Fame inductee on their blueline. Thomas Chabot has shown signs he will develop into a top pairing defender, and Christian Wolanin gave everybody a reason to believe in him in the few games he played with the club at the end of the year. Realistically, they could get away without having Karlsson on the team, although the playmaking ability and leadership he provides will be hard to replace.
On the other hand, the team desperately needs a top six centre and to strengthen their bottom six. The likes of Alex Burrows and Marián Gáborík, while providing a veteran presence, do little to better the team when they’re on the ice. With Karlsson as trade bait, the team could easily bring in a second line centre to fill the gap between the newly acquired Matt Duchene and the not-quite-top-six Jean-Gabriel Pageau, as well as strong depth players to round out an offence that has been incredibly lacking over the past two seasons.
Given the comments out of the Sens office at the end of this year, trading to build for the future seems to be a much more likely scenario. After their season ticket holder town hall meetings at the end of this season, Pierre Dorion assured the fanbase that there is a “three-to-five year plan” in place to rebuild the team. With the acquisition of top goaltending prospect Filip Gustavsson, the emergence of defensemen Chabot and Wolanin, as well as a pipeline full of talent such as Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Logan Brown, the Ottawa Senators could truly be a very competitive team within the timeframe Dorion promised. As far as building a strong future team is concerned, trading Erik Karlsson for a plethora of draft picks and prospect players could be an incredibly smart move for a Senators team aiming to transition into the spotlight for something positive.
Of course, fans are cautiously optimistic for the most obvious of the possible outcomes: Karlsson staying in Ottawa on a long-term contract. At the end of the 2018-2019 season, Karlsson will be an Unrestricted Free Agent, free to sign with any team that entices him, if the team hasn’t signed him before then.
As General Manager Pierre Dorion has already assured fans that he will not trade his star player before the entry draft, and with players frequently not willing to negotiate contracts during the regular season, the team appears to have a very short three-month window in which they will be able to come to an agreement to keep Karlsson in town. Realistically, Karlsson knows he is worth north of $11 million per year, and settling for less than that will be unlikely, especially given comments he made to media earlier this year. As team Owner, CEO, and President Eugene Melnyk is notorious for having a tight budget, the likelihood of Karlsson remaining a Senator seems slim. On the chance he does re-sign with the team that drafted him, having a significant amount of money devoted to him, as well as the contracts of Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone with his likely extension, and Marián Gáborík, the team will have little space to work with to patch upcoming holes in their lineup. By being forced into patchwork and salary cap limitations, having a significant amount of cash tied up by one player could keep the team in a state of perpetual mediocrity, wasting away the prime years of the very player they hope to keep.
There is, in fact, a strong possibility that keeping Erik Karlsson may not be the best option for the future competitiveness of the team.