Everywhere you look, Sens blogs (including this one) and “legitimate” “newspaper” “writers” are bemoaning a Senators team that, according to Playoffstatus, have a 7% chance of snagging the 8th seed. Who can blame them? The year before last, which was the first playoff-less year in over a decade, was seen as an anomaly for a team switching coaches every few months and dealing with the Emery mess. But this year is different: there’s been no torrid start, and no scoring, let alone win streaks. This team came out of the gate like a wet noodle and hasn’t fared much better since. It’s rare to look at a season that is still so young and know that you don’t have much to look forward to, be it playoffs or a high draft pick. (As an aside, we definitely picked a great season in which to start a Sens blog.) There are still about 50 games on the schedule, and so long as this team stays in the mediocre middle – not rebuilding, but not competitive – I don’t know how long fans will tune in. They’re pretty savvy in Ottawa; they’re not that into “anything can happen in the playoffs” being the plan for the future.
Which brings me to Erik Karlsson. He’s in a unique position, in that he represents the youth of this club, but is playing out his entry-level contract while the rest of our good defensive prospects – Cowen, Wiercioch, Rundblad – are still looking at a year or two of development. He hasn’t hit his ceiling by a long-shot, and he hasn’t filled out (though expecting him to be physical is like expecting him to be a different kind of player), but we’ve seen glimpses of what he’s capable of. He’s in that purgatorial state where he’s neither a prospect nor a veteran, and for all of his talent is not enough of a blue-chipper that this team can build around him.
So the tough question is: if this team launches into a rebuild (which remains to be seen), is Karlsson actually tradable?
From a sentimental point of view, I say no: I like his play, his enthusiasm and creativity, and how his voice sounds like he’s sucking back helium. He’s only in his second season, and I feel he has a lot more to show us. But from a strictly developmental perspective, the timing isn’t great. After next season he’ll need another contract, and one would have to think that he’ll be earning at least $2M – $2.5M given he plays twenty minutes a night and occasionally quarterbacks Ottawa’s power play. (Which, it should be noted, is rated 12th in the NHL after last year being rated 21st, and spending most of the season next to last.) He’s worth that money, but is also worth more now from a trading perspective than he’ll ever be. If Ottawa is going to implement a plan to win in three to five seasons rather than right now, are we better off with a high draft pick / a prospect that’s a year or two from breaking the big game, or is Erik a big part of Ottawa’s future?
Of course, trading him will never happen. Murray traded last season’s pick for a player selected in the same spot a year earlier, jumping the development line by a year – he’s not looking to build long term, he’s looking to jump start production. But if this team is facing the big ideological questions of what kind of team it wants to be, where do you see Erik Karlsson fitting in?