LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Somebody pinch Erik Karlsson before he wakes up.
The Ottawa Senators defenceman arrived in Las Vegas hoping to become the youngest winner of the Norris Trophy in more than two decades and ended up signing a life-changing US$45.5-million, seven-year contract extension a day before the winner was even announced.
“It’s a special feeling,” Karlsson said Tuesday at the Wynn Las Vegas. “I’m very happy we could get it done here while everyone’s here. We can talk about it and be happy. Hopefully they’re as happy as I am.”
Who could have predicted this a year ago?
Karlsson endured the struggles expected of a young defenceman during his first two years in the NHL before taking flight this season. His 78 points were 25 more than any other blue-liner managed and helped make him a Norris Trophy finalist at Wednesday’s award show along with Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
Just like that, he’s become the NHL’s sixth highest-paid defenceman with his second pro contract.
“I’m very happy that I’m here right now,” said Karlsson. “It’s not something that I counted on this early in my career. I’m very grateful to especially Ottawa for letting me be who I am and playing my game and developing into the kind of player I am today.
“It has a lot to do with them.”
The negotiations presented Senators general manager Bryan Murray with an interesting quandary: Do you reward Karlsson with a megadeal based on one outstanding season or elect to go with a shorter term and see if he can do it again?
Murray weighed the merits of each approach before signing the Swede through the 2018-19 season.
“He’s a cornerstone guy,” said Murray. “He’s a young man with a great future. I think the way he took off this year tells us that over the next number of years he will continue to improve and be a guy we can build around.”
The deal came together quickly after Murray met with Karlsson’s agent Craig Ostler in Las Vegas on Monday night. A new contract was completed by Tuesday morning.
Not only did it guarantee that Karlsson will leave Las Vegas as a winner no matter what happens at the awards show, it also ensures he’ll face a new level of pressure next season after becoming Ottawa’s second highest-paid player behind Jason Spezza.
“It’s going to be higher expectations from everyone, especially from you (media) guys,” said Karlsson. “That’s the way it is. It’s not something that kind of snuck up on me. I know how it is and I know how it works.
“I’m going to try and play my best every night. It’s all I can do. I’m not happy where I am today, I’m still trying to be a better hockey player.”
The expectations will be increased all over the nation’s capital following a surprising season that saw the Senators send a strong contingent to the end-of-year awards banquet. Not only did Karlsson earn the Norris nomination, but coach Paul MacLean is up for the Jack Adams Award and captain Daniel Alfredsson is a finalist for the Masterton Trophy.
No one was happier to see Karlsson ink the long-term deal than Alfredsson, who invited the rookie defenceman to live with his family a couple seasons back.
“He’s a person that everybody likes to be around,” said Alfredsson. “His skill on the ice is unbelievable and I think we’re just starting to see his potential. At 22, to be able to accomplish already what he has, is unbelievable. It’s been extremely fun being part of the start of his career.
“I’m happy for him to get this deal.”
Alfredsson credits MacLean’s arrival in Ottawa for playing an “influential” role in Karlsson’s development because of the coach’s past experience with star players while working as an assistant for the Detroit Red Wings.
MacLean is thrilled he’ll have the opportunity to continue working with his star pupil.
“I think it’s important that we’re sending the right message to our team that we’re serious about winning and we want to win and if you’re an important player on our team we’re going to take the steps that are necessary to do it,” he said. “I think Bryan has historically has done that over the years. This is just another indication of his will to win and also (owner) EugeneMelnyk’s willingness to spend what we need to in the right ways in order to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe Karlsson was taken 15th overall at the 2008 draft—a move that now appears to be a major coup. With his new contract in hand, the defenceman is hoping to repay the organization for all of the faith it has shown in him.
“I’m very pleased with everything they’ve done for me,” said Karlsson. “Committing to seven years is very big. I’m very, very grateful for that. Now it’s up to me to show that all of those seven years are going to be worth it.”