After months of speculation and drama, the Ottawa Senators traded captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday. The 28-year-old five-time All-Star, two-time Norris Trophy winner, and 2014 Olympic silver medalist is headed to California (along with prospect forward Francis Perron) in exchange for forward Chris Tierney, defenseman Dylan DeMelo, and prospects Josh Norris and Rudolfs Balcers, along with at least two conditional draft picks.
Trade rumors involving Karlsson have run rampant for more than a season. Karlsson, who was entering the last year of his contract in 2018, did not seem especially keen on signing up for eight more years of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s Flying Circus — and for good reason. The NHL doesn’t generate the kind of year-round, off-ice coverage in the United States that the NBA does, so Melnyk’s war on his best player (and maybe the best player in franchise history) has flown largely under the radar. But when closely examined, this saga makes Carmelo Anthony’s departure from the Denver Nuggets look positively amicable by comparison.
Melnyk is a closefisted crank, derided in NHL circles much like James Dolan is in the NBA and the Wilpons are in MLB. Great sports owners pay top dollar for the best players, coaches, and executives, then get out of their way — Melnyk does neither. He spends to the salary floor purely out of obligation and then refuses to keep his mouth shut. Melnyk is the kind of blustery personality who’s liable to start implausible conspiracy theories about injuries to his players, and he forever etched the term “sub-sock” into the hockey lexicon. The Senators also recently published a bizarre video in which defenseman Mark Borowiecki interviewed Melnyk about the state of the team. During the course of the video, Melnyk debunked, in positively Trumpian verbiage, rumors that he might move the team. “Some people are talking in town, ‘Ah, he may move the team,’” was Melnyk’s preamble — never mind that it was Melnyk himself who threatened to move the Senators late last year. Though, as things stand now, relieving Ottawa of the turgid and fruitless brand of hockey that Melnyk’s Senators have put on feels less like a threat than an act of mercy.
Off the ice, Karlsson had other reasons for wanting a fresh start, as his family suffered an annus horribilis. His first son was stillborn in March, and in June his wife filed a protection order against Monika Caryk, the fiancée of Karlsson’s then-teammate Mike Hoffman, alleging that Caryk had harassed the Karlssons online. Under those circumstances, it’s understandable that Karlsson would want out of Ottawa.
The Sharks beat out the Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars, and other bidders for Karlsson, and it’s no surprise that numerous teams would seek out his services. Karlsson is, bluntly, the best defenseman in the NHL, and one of the best puck-moving blueliners in the history of the sport. He is faster, smarter, and better with the puck on his stick than just about any playmaker at any position, and even under head coach Guy Boucher — whose 1–3–1 trap system is antithetical to creating offense — Karlsson was capable of setting up an open shot from literally anywhere on the ice.
(That’s Karlsson, delivering a primary assist from behind his own goal line, through five Bruins defenders.)
Unshackled from Boucher’s system, Karlsson will have more freedom and better teammates than he’s had in years. Canadian Olympian Marc-Édouard Vlasic and fellow Norris winner Brent Burns are already on the roster, and Karlsson’s addition gives the Sharks one of the best defensive corps in recent NHL history.
As a neutral party to this trade, I’m a little disappointed to see Karlsson head to a team known for its own brand of playoff futility — the Sharks’ relentless regular-season competence, paired with inevitable playoff ineptitude, makes them the NHL’s equivalent of the Toronto Raptors. It would’ve been a little more fun to see him give the Golden Knights, who just traded for former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, their first legitimate superstar, or to land in Dallas, where he’d play alongside John Klingberg, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin and have the potential to reinvigorate the NHL in Texas. The Sharks were already going to be competitive this season, and followed fanatically, with or without Karlsson.
Even so, the prospect of Karlsson springing Logan Couture or tricky Czech forward Tomas Hertl with stretch passes, or combining with Joe Thornton — himself one of the best playmakers the game’s ever seen — on the power play should be enough to get you to stay up late for San Jose’s 10 p.m. ET start times. And if nothing else, at least he’s out of Ottawa.
In return for this transcendent figure, the Senators received … not that much. Tierney’s a nice third-line forward, but the two youngsters Ottawa got back are the no. 3 and no. 4 prospects in a middling San Jose system, according to Corey Pronman of The Athletic, and given that the Sharks make the playoffs every year, that conditional 2020 first-rounder probably won’t even be in the top 20. Since Karlsson could still walk after next season, it’s understandable that San Jose wouldn’t be eager to give up more, but it’s still a pitiful return for Ottawa, given how irreplaceable a player Karlsson is.
The Senators — who in June also offloaded Hoffman, himself a consistent 50- to 60-point scorer, in the wake of the harassment scandal — are going to suck next year. (Hoffman, ironically, passed briefly through San Jose before the Sharks immediately flipped him to Florida.) But no matter how bad they get, they won’t even have their own first-round draft pick this season. That pick was shipped to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a three-way deal that upgraded the Senators’ first-line center from Kyle Turris to Matt Duchene. (After the trade, Turris scored 42 points in 65 games for Nashville, while Duchene scored 49 points in 68 games.) Duchene will probably leave as a free agent after the 2019 season.
Ottawa is, to use Melnyk’s words, “kind of in the dumpster.” But fear not, Sens fans, at least Melnyk isn’t going anywhere.