Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: To set the scene: Karlsson recently told the Ottawa Sun that he’s not going to give the Senators a hometown discount when he hits unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019. This sparked some league-wide speculation about his future in Ottawa, with “Hockey Night In Canada” analyst Nick Kypreos saying Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was upset over the declaration and Elliotte Friedman reporting that the Senators asked Karlsson for his list of approved teams for a trade — something he said was procedural, but no less intriguing.
Whether the Senators trade Karlsson is almost two different questions, depending entirely on Karlsson’s aspirations. If it seems like he’s most interested in greener pastures than being a career Senators, then Ottawa has to entertain the idea. If he wants to remain in Ottawa, and the question is whether they should flip one of the best defensemen in NHL history before he’s 30 in exchange for rebuilding blocks, then the answer is a resounding “no.”
As I mentioned in the Awards Watch, Karlsson has the Nicklas Lidstrom effect, in which even an average season is exponentially better than 99 percent of other defensemen’s great seasons. Karlsson’s season has been dragged down by his injury rehab and the general putridity of his team, but I don’t view it as a decline. And, again, what’s a decline for Erik Karlsson? God to demigod?
Karlsson is part of the solution, not the problem. He’s a foundational pillar for a rebuild; and frankly, the timetables for rebuilds in the NHL are so unpredictable he could still be in his prime when they circle back to contention. He’s a defenseman who has several years of elite play left in him. He’s a franchise player for whom there will never be equal value returning to Ottawa; and please recall that a player of Karlsson’s stature and financial wants has a limited trade market, because max value hinges on him signing there.
Plus, these franchise player deals rarely work for the franchise dealing them. Ron Francis, for example, was 27 when the Hartford Whalers traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ask the Whalers how that turned out. Or don’t, because they don’t bloody exist anymore.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: These are bleak times in Ottawa. A team that was among the peskiest in the Eastern Conference last season is floundering; at 9-12-7, the Senators are seventh in the anemic Atlantic Division. They’ve lost 11 of their past 12 and their splashy early-season move — essentially swapping venerable Kyle Turris for a younger, more talented center in Matt Duchene — isn’t panning out yet. Duchene’s stats in Ottawa: 14 games, two goals, two assists, a minus-11 rating. Join me for a resounding: woof.
Does that mean Ottawa should do something drastic? Maybe. (This is still a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, so I wouldn’t be too trigger-happy just yet.) Does that mean Ottawa should trade Karlsson? I don’t know how to be more emphatic when I say: no, no, absolutely not.
As Greg notes above, the root of the issue isn’t shaking things up, but rather squeezing value from a player who might not want to stick around for the long term. Free agency is a remarkable thing because it empowers players. They aren’t bound to the teams that drafted them and they can gracefully exit situations they don’t want to be in. That said, is there any indication yet that Karlsson doesn’t want to be in Ottawa? No. He’s just saying he wants to make sure he can maximize his value — which is fully within his rights. So if there’s any chance Karlsson can be manning this blue line for the foreseeable future — which there is — you keep him. Because, as Greg also notes, Karlsson is a transcendent, generational player. If you’re a GM with that type of talent, you do everything in your power to build around him.
Trading Karlsson would only accelerate the nosedive the Senators are in now, and why on Earth would any reasonable GM instigate that?
Chris Peters, NHL Insider: Before I get into whether or not the Sens should trade Karlsson, can we talk about how absurd it is that the owner is reportedly miffed that one of the best players in the world made it known that he wants to be paid what he’s worth? I get it, you’ve got to look after your bottom line, and no owner really wants to spend more money, but Karlsson has been playing at a discounted rate essentially for the life of his current contract. Paying what he’s worth on the next contract is the least the Senators could do for a player of Karlsson’s caliber.
I can’t even begin to think of the return the Sens would command if they ever wanted to entertain the idea of moving Karlsson. Replacing his minutes, his point production, his impact on possession and his star power in a market where it’s already tougher to draw is a virtual impossibility. You just can’t get better trading away that kind of talent.
With all of that said, if the alternative is losing Karlsson in free agency for nothing, GM Pierre Dorion has to at least consider the option of trading his star defenseman, but certainly not yet. I can’t see any reason for the Sens to let him go before exhausting all possibilities of signing him to a long-term deal. If it ever becomes clear that they won’t be able to make it work, then you’ve got until next season’s trading deadline to make this decision.
Part of that is going to be selling Karlsson on the long-term vision of the franchise and showing the path to the Stanley Cup. As close as they got last year to the Cup Final, this season has made those title chances seem a little more distant. The Sens do have some good young players in their system who should figure into both their short-term and long-term plans. Players like Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Filip Chlapik, Alex Formenton and Logan Brown, among others, have some high-end qualities that could help when this team starts transitioning away from its big-ticket veterans. That helps the recruiting pitch a bit, but only if Ottawa is willing to pay full freight for its star. This whole will-they, won’t-they saga is going to be incredible to watch.