Erik Karlsson wants to remain an Ottawa Senator, but the franchise is reportedly on the verge of trading him away.
It could happen by Monday’s trade deadline.
If it doesn’t, the expectation is that Karlsson will be moved at some point this offseason.
This is the sobering reality that Senators fans have to come to terms with and no one should blame them for their bitter resentment.
It’s not every day one of the best players in the game today is put on the market.
The Swedish defenceman’s list of accomplishments is impressive: he is a five-time NHL All-Star; a four-time First Team NHL All-Star; he has finished in the top-ten of Hart Trophy balloting four times; and he won the James Norris Memorial Trophy twice (despite deserving the award on four occasions).
Karlsson is unequivocally the most talented player to ever don a Senators jersey.
Beyond the skill and prowess, Karlsson is also invested in this city.
Ottawa is his home.
He bought house in the Glebe this past summer and moved into it a few short months ago. His pregnant wife is from the area and he has already acknowledged that his intent is to spend his summers in Ottawa because “I live here, and I’m going to live here no matter what. If not all year round, I’m going to live here in the summer. My wife is from here and this is where we’re set.”
It begs the question, how the hell did we get to this point?
Blame ego. Blame dysfunction. Blame impulsive behaviour. Blame trust. Blame a vision that emphasized short-term results at the expense of a more sustainable long-term plan. Blame the treatment of Karlsson’s friends and teammates. Blame money.
There is no question that Karlsson is going to want fair market value on his next contract. With one year left on his deal beyond this season, Karlsson will want to cash in and sign a long-term extension that makes him one of if not the highest paid defencemen in the NHL.
Having cleared out a substantial chunk of Dion Phaneuf’s contract over the next few years, it looked like the Senators were preparing themselves to go to Karlsson this summer and offer him the world – putting the ball in his court and forcing him to make a decision on his future. In the event that Karlsson did elect to leave, the organization could then have the luxury of saying, “Look, we did everything that we could to keep him here. He just chose not to stay.”
Thanks to recent rumours however, it sounds like the Senators are working through a variety of scenarios with a variety of teams to find a deal with Karlsson now.
That Karlsson would want out now sheds light on the most important consideration that will not change by the time he could formally be allowed to negotiate an extension with the team this summer: Senators ownership.
Everything starts and stops with Eugene Melnyk and now the question Karlsson has asked himself isn’t really dissimilar from what Senators fans should be thinking.
Why should anyone trust an owner who has presided over this chaos be the one responsible for leading this organization out of this mess?
Since buying the Senators out of bankruptcy in 2003, Melnyk has habitually demonstrated a stubborn unwillingness learn from his mistakes to not only make himself a better boss, but a better person.
Rather than admit culpability for the Senators’ downtrodden state, the buck is passed. The trail of bodies includes an embarrassment of employees, seven coaches and a revolving door of C-level executives. Even Daniel Alfredsson has been burned. Twice.
The Senators have had four CFOs since the start of the 2015 calendar year and seven coaching changes since the team appeared in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. In 2016, the organization essentially fired its entire executive group, including team president Cyril Leeder, chief financial officer Ken Taylor, chief marketing officer Peter O’Leary, broadcast VP Jim Steel, general counsel Wendy Kelly and director of human resources Sandi Horner.
O’Leary filed a suit in March of 2017 against the Senators and its owner claiming that his termination was in breach of his contract. In O’Leary’s statement of claim, he not only portrayed the work environment as one of dysfunction, but one that was plagued by the abusive behaviour of its owner.
A few short weeks ago, news leaked that team president and CEO Tom Anselmi had resigned. To counter the negative press, the organization blatantly tried to bury it in the weekend news cycle by announcing that general manager Pierre Dorion had signed a three-year contract extension.
Dorion obviously has the confidence of ownership to enact his plan, but perhaps no one better understands the culture that comes with working in the hockey operations department better than a guy who has worked within the organization since 2007.
There’s a reason why no external front office executive has been hired since Eugene Melnyk came aboard. It takes a certain understanding of what it takes to work for one of the most volatile owners in professional sports.
From Melnyk’s infamous media availability during the NHL 100 Classic weekend, he acknowledged that the Senators have “cut everything to the bone in the organization. We are probably one of the thinnest management groups that you have in the league.”
Between this admission and his pattern of behaviour, it’s no surprise to hear that this disconnect between the owner and this fan base has now extended to the players.
In the Ottawa Citizen today, a former Senator who played on last year’s Eastern Conference Final team told Postmedia’s Michael Traikos that “I think the whole situation there is f—ed up. That’s the best way to put it.”
“There’s so much going on behind the scenes that I don’t know who’s pulling the strings, but I feel bad because the fans there are so awesome,” the player requesting anonymity continued. “I loved playing there and it’s got to be so hard for them because we were one goal away from going to the Stanley Cup final last year and then there’s this.”
If former players and the ones within the dressing room believe that they can no longer trust the owner or management, why should the fans?
Essentially these circumstances create a situation where the only realistic way Erik Karlsson conceivably remains an Ottawa Senator long-term is if Melnyk is somehow forced to sell.
Until he does however, fans may be reluctant to reach for their wallets.
That’s not to say that fans in this city aren’t passionate or don’t love this hockey team. They do.
It’s not unconditional love however and for years, Melnyk has abused their trust.
These days this fan base bears a resemblance to the dogs from the Seligman and Maier psychology experiments. In the 15 years that Melnyk has owned this franchise, the experience has fostered and reinforced a state of learned helplessness amongst fans.
It always felt like things were building towards this moment, but it just took a while to get there.
So general manager Pierre Dorion can fly down to Barbados a few weeks ago to sell Eugene Melnyk on his plan and in turn, sell fans on the hope that this franchise is on the right path and that there’s hope for the future.
It’s what sports franchises do when they cannot sell a winner.
Theoretically, a big part of that future could be landed by putting Karlsson on the trade block. But if rumours are true and the Senators are willing to marginalize their return on Erik Karlsson by insisting on the inclusion of Bobby Ryan in a trade, it tells me all I need to know about Senators ownership and the organization’s mandate.
Success in the modern NHL requires a strong investment in amateur and professional scouting, player development, training facilities, emerging technology and proprietary data analysis. The Senators are already years behind the curve and this needs to change.
It’s going to take more than a lottery pick or two to turn this franchise around and what franchises like Buffalo and Edmonton have shown is that if you do not have a sound process, an organization can spin its tires floundering in years of mediocrity.
If the Senators refuse to change their philosophy and reallocate their money more appropriately, a rebuild won’t be successful. It will only serve as a fire sale designed to let its owner pocket millions.