This might turn out to be the most important week in the history of the Ottawa Senators. And it could very well be the prime indicator in whether the Senators turn out to be a modern-day version of the 1980s Quebec Nordiques or truly put themselves back on the path of a proper rebuild.
One domino has already toppled with the Mike Hoffman trade to the San Jose Sharks. (Hoffman was subsequently flipped by the Sharks to the Florida Panthers.) The other, far more significant, piece will be resolved when the Senators determine what they’re going to do with superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson going forward. If Karlsson ends up being a Vegas Golden Knight or goes somewhere else by the time team’s start drafting on Friday night, we will look back on this week and point to it as the precise moment in time the Senators set the reset button in a positive way or put themselves on the path or ruin.
It’s clear, particularly after reading the strong language Senators GM Pierre Dorion used to justify the trade, that Hoffman had to go regardless of what came of the cyber bullying allegations involving Hoffman’s fiancée and Karlsson’s wife, Melinda. Armed with almost no leverage, Dorion managed to be able to at least get some assets and make his owner happy. Even though the Senators save just $1.19 million against the salary cap with the transaction, Hoffman was due to be paid $5.65 million each of the next two seasons, while Mikkel Boedker will make only $3 million each of the next two seasons, despite having a cap hit of $4 million. That’s a savings of $5.3 million in real money over the next two years, something that is not a small consideration in Ottawa.
Speaking of money, though, anyone who thinks this trade was made to save Karlsson from being dealt somewhere else is probably a little deluded. If it had ever come down to keeping one or the other, Hoffman was always going to be the one getting dealt. Removing him from the dressing room actually doesn’t change their situation with Karlsson one iota. They still face the same challenge in making this work and it will still likely lead to them dealing him, either on the draft floor or shortly after.
Because this is also about money, plain and simple. That doesn’t change with Hoffman being dealt. Erik Karlsson still wants to be paid both in money and term commensurate with superstar wages when his current contract expires after this season, which he has every right to try to attain. That probably doesn’t work for the cash-strapped Senators, who signed Karlsson to a seven-year deal coming off his entry-level contract that is beginning to look pretty team friendly these days.
It’s interesting to note that Karlsson signed his current contract, which carries a $6.5 million cap hit, the day before he was awarded his first Norris Trophy. Less than a month later, the Nashville Predators matched an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 14-year deal worth $110 million (cap hit of $7.9 million) to Shea Weber, who has never won a Norris Trophy. There was nothing stopping the Senators from giving Karlsson one of those front-loaded megadeals at the time since they had not yet been abolished by the new CBA. Looking in retrospect, that might have been their biggest mistake.
At the age of 28 and coming off major ankle surgery, Karlsson may very well prove to be a declining asset on an eight-year deal. There’s nothing wrong with the Senators coming to that determination and deciding to deal him based on that. But in order to make it work, they have to deal him while he’s worth the most and that’s with one year left on his contract. After having no leverage in the Hoffman deal, Dorion can’t get stuck again. Karlsson will be worth much less at the trade deadline than he is now.
Which is why Dorion would be well advised to follow the lead of John Chayka in Arizona. Chayka essentially told his franchise cornerstone, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, that there was an eight-year contract worth $8.25 million per on the table waiting for his signature. But if he had no intention of signing with the team long-term, Chayka had to know by draft day so he could start shopping him.
It worked out with the player signing in that case. That likely won’t be the scenario this time. As much as the Senators keep reminding their fans that they can’t have a deal in place for Karlsson until July 1, there is absolutely nothing keeping them from negotiating with him and even coming to terms, then announcing the pact on July 1. That does not appear to be even close to happening at the moment.
And if it’s not going to happen, the Senators would be best to say goodbye to the best player in their history and extract as much as they can for him on the trade market. It will be an interesting couple of days for the Ottawa Senators.
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