What We Learned: Erik Karlsson and blowing up the Senators

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It’s a matter of when, not if, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4491/" data-ylk="slk:Erik Karlsson">Erik Karlsson</a> moves on from the Senators. (Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s a matter of when, not if, Erik Karlsson moves on from the Senators. (Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

Wouldn’t you know it, but that team everyone said probably wasn’t any good last year despite going to the Eastern Conference Final, is now decidedly not very good.

The Ottawa Senators finished Saturday night seven points back of the Bruins, and three other teams are between them in a division where it certainly seems like there won’t be a wild card team come April. They’ve also won just four points in nearly a month, with a win and two OT losses in their past 12 games.

So seven points might as well be a million, and the Senators are now wisely starting to look like they could go through a minor blow-up of the roster, which is something that has been badly needed for some time.

The front office asked all of the players on the roster with some sort of no-trade protection — and there are 10 of them! — to turn in their lists of teams to which they would not approve a trade. As was pointed out on Hockey Night in Canada, the team made a similar move in 2011, then dealt Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Alex Kovalev.

Matt Duchene, by the way, has no such protection.

Despite all the talk about the Senators being a bad team (they are), there are also some very talented players on the roster. Erik Karlsson is obviously one of a handful of the best players alive, but guys like Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are high-end talents as well. They’re not stars but they’re guys you can build around. The rest of the team, well, the less said about it the better, especially because of how money is appropriated throughout that roster.

What’s interesting is that we talk about the Senators being a budget team, which they are by all accounts, but they’re not that far from the cap ceiling ($1.725 million) and have six contracts worth at least $5 million AAV.

Any time any sort of discussion about the Senators cutting salary comes up, the attention obviously turns to Karlsson, whose prime was effectively wasted through organizational ineptitude, mismanagement and penny-pinching. Karlsson is the star here and makes a good chunk of change, and is already making noise about (rightly) demanding a fat contract in summer 2019, when he’ll be 29.

While the Senators didn’t trade Karlsson in that 2011 talent purge, such as it was, they would have had no reason to do so. At the time, he was still in just the second year of his ELC and therefore under team control for nearly a decade to come. Now, nearly seven years later, the idea that he’d price himself out of Ottawa anyway come free agency time, and that Pierre Dorion can probably get some fairly valuable stuff for him (especially given his bargain contract), they necessarily must consider trading him. Get the no-trade list, start working the phones. Someone is going to want him. Hopefully someone good with a haul of picks and prospects to give.

It’s an unenviable spot for Dorion, because if you trade Karlsson (and you basically have to, either now or in the summer) you might as well rip the whole thing down and sell it for scrap. A Senators team without Karlsson is a squirrel on the highway, and it’ll only be a matter of time before it’s crushed again and again by oncoming traffic.

I know we’re supposed to think, “Oh he’s in such a bad slump right now, how can he make these demands,” but let’s be realistic. Ottawa has a 53.9 CF% when he’s on the ice this season, and when he’s off? It’s just 46.9. Karlsson has been on the ice for 27 goals in 23 games. Ottawa as a team has just 49 more in 28. And this despite the fact that Karlsson has an on-ice shooting percentage right now of only 7.9 in all situations (the league average is 8.9).

Karlsson in another uniform might be unimaginable — and a hateful sight — to Senators fans, but they might want to start getting used to the idea. The problems with this roster aren’t all Dorion’s fault, but they’re certainly his mess to clean up, and given that you can’t afford to lose Karlsson for nothing in two summers (with what is probably going to be another lost season and a half) then the long-term health of the franchise must be the only consideration. Obviously GMs who trade superstars don’t end up keeping their jobs, and any rebuild Dorion initiates would likely last longer than he would, but the idea that you should try to trade, say, Bobby Ryan or Zack Smith but keep Karlsson only to (probably) lose him in 2019 is odious and irresponsible.

Of course, we also don’t know what a Karlsson trade ends up looking like. Given what GMs have recently had to give up to get okay-ish, cheap-ish middle-pairing guys who have a little bit more room to grow, there’s no calculable package a GM could give up, especially in-season, to acquire a player of Karlsson’s talent level. No such trade has ever been carried out in the cap era, and would therefore rewrite the book. If you can’t even get full value on a Hall-for-Larsson swap, the raft of picks, prospects and young skilled NHL players you’d have to concede would be incredible.

I know we talked a lot about sticking to your guns with Joe Sakic throughout the Duchene saga, but in the end, Colorado didn’t get anything much that’s going to help the team be competitive in the near-term. He got the best haul he could, which was a young, good NHL defenseman (Samuel Girard), a pretty good forward prospect (Vlad Kamenev), an okay-but-by-no-means-great first-year college player (Shane Bowers), a salary dump (Andrew Hammond), and four draft picks (including two first-rounders).

Could Ottawa reasonably expect more of a haul than that? Especially if there’s only one other team involved? It’s tough to imagine they would, simply because few would have the ability to give up more than that. Can you really ask a team for its entire draft for a year or two? You’re not getting Karlsson, or even a semi-reasonable facsimile, back, so you have to accept that any Karlsson trade is one you probably end up losing, and losing badly.

Nonetheless, you have to make it, because the other option is making him go through the motions for another 140 games or so as your club craters, then lose him for nothing in free agency when Eugene Melnyk can’t find the money between his couch cushions to pay Karlsson $12 million. Which, by the way, is what Karlsson is probably worth despite his age.

Maybe you feel like it was always going to come to this. It’s tough to say Karlsson should do anything but walk given the state of the team, the fact that he’s probably never going to win a Stanley Cup there, and that they might not be able to pay him anyway.

That gives you no choice but to blow it all up, because if the team stinks with Karlsson off the ice, think about what happens when he’s off the roster completely and nothing was done to replace even a portion of his value.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: It’s too late.

Arizona Coyotes: Nice to get 35 shots but also sometimes you run into probably the best goalie in the world at that moment.

Boston Bruins: Do you think it’s possible the Bruins defense looks good because Tuukka Rask is playing out of his mind right now? Nah, that can’t be it.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres did a poor job drafting and developing talent but you knew that already, didn’t you?

Calgary Flames: Speaking of guys that haven’t developed, wouldn’t the Flames like the current version of Sam Bennett to be their friend for a while more?

Carolina Hurricanes: Carolina put a scare into Vegas but every bounce is going right for Vegas all season so, take the point and feel good about it.

Chicago Blackhawks: Vince Hinostroza was too good to keep in Rockford. Probably too good to have been sent there in the first place.

Colorado Avalanche: Lots of goals, sure, but also: It was Florida.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Doubtful that Columbus is the actual best team in the division again this year, but their case is so much more compelling now.

Dallas Stars: Sorry, but you need your best players to be better.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s getting to the point where the Detroit media is looking at 6-1 losses and being like, “Coulda been worse!” And they’re not wrong. Unreal.

Edmonton Oilers: Ah, the Oilers are good again. Just in time for them to lose four of five or something and have everyone turn on them.

Florida Panthers: A little surprised you’d retire No. 37 for Tanner Glass, but congrats to the guy. He earned it.

Los Angeles Kings: I love the trade for the third-best Subban.

Minnesota Wild: To be fair: It’s the Ducks.

Montreal Canadiens: Hmm, seems to me that “time” was two years ago, but hey.

Nashville Predators: The “original golden team” was California. It’s right there in the name, dawg. C’mon!

New Jersey Devils: Well, this headline reads like a Pepto ad.

New York Islanders: I don’t know how you blame goaltending in a game where your goalie stops 30 of 32 and the offense only scores one goal, but hey, it’s not like I’m a hockey genius or anything. (Just kidding, I am.)

New York Rangers: These are not the kind of headlines that end well.

Ottawa Senators: Haha, “becoming.”

Philadelphia Flyers: Can’t say for sure which Gudas comes back from suspension, but if I were a betting man, I’d put all my money on, “The one who tries to hurt people a lot.”

Pittsburgh Penguins: Oh yeah baby, here we go!

San Jose Sharks: Man, I dunno. Paul Martin is old as hell now.

St. Louis Blues: I don’t like to see that!

Tampa Bay Lightning: B-b-b-b-best team in the league.

Toronto Maple Leafs: I love when Tyler Bozak is occasionally good. That’s always funny to me.

Vancouver Canucks: My theory is that this Vancouver team was never that good. Just a theory!

Vegas Golden Knights: The Stars are the first non-Arizona team Vegas beat in regulation in like three weeks. Hooray for this definitely good team.

Washington Capitals: This was always a good team with Matt Niskanen in the lineup, but this run has been unbelievable.

Winnipeg Jets: Maybe they didn’t play that great, but to get a point out of Tampa ain’t bad either.

Play of the weekend

A bit of a comedy of errors in the neutral zone, but this was a nice one from Nathan MacKinnon.

Gold Star Award

Mitch Marner had three assists on Saturday night against the Penguins, and man, those were his first points in seven games. Must be nice!

Minus of the Weekend

Jimmy Howard gave up four goals on 10 shots and now has an .846 save percentage in his last nine games, after starting at .931 in his first 15.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Baksfamous112” is got my attention with just this subject line:

Weber for Karlsson

Signoff

But what if I were to purchase fast food and disguise it as my own cooking?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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