Sports

Scott Stinson: Erik Karlsson trade an indictment of Eugene Melnyk and entire Senators franchise

Eugene Melnyk invited a group of Ottawa reporters to the
Canadian Tire Centre as a public-relations offensive on
Wednesday, and as recounted hilariously by colleague Kelly
Egan, the Senators owner took a call after about 15 minutes and
left the room.

He did not return.

I like to imagine that it was Gary Bettman on the other end of
the phone call, pleading with Melnyk to stop talking.

The owner was well into selling his vision of a new era in
Senators hockey by that point, and there’s a good chance it set
off AWHOOGA AWHOOGA bomb-shelter klaxons in the NHL offices.
With the baffling video interview that the Sens released late
Tuesday night, Melnyk had already signalled that his team was
about to undergo a down-to-the-studs asset sale of heroic
proportions. That video was accompanied by advertisements
touting a similar message: the Senators, conference finalists
just two seasons ago, are about to get very young and very
cheap. And also parking at the arena will be discounted.

In
this March, 3, 2018, file photo, Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik
Karlsson pauses on the ice during the second period of the team’s
NHL hockey game against the Arizona Coyotes in Glendale,
Ariz.
AP
Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

Left unsaid by Melnyk and cohorts in all of the #OttawaRising
cheerleading was the obvious conclusion that all-world
defenceman Erik Karlsson was not long for the Senators. Fans
who had been holding out hope for years that the team might
figure out a way for the two-time Norris Trophy winner to stay
in Ottawa after his contract expired at the end of this season
were essentially told there was no chance of that, not when the
owner was matter-of-factly explaining that he expects almost
half the roster to be rookies this year.

And so, it has come to pass. Karlsson to San Jose, for a
package of prospects and picks. That Karlsson seemed genuinely
saddened to be shipped off like this will not make the trade
any easier for Ottawa fans.

Much will be said and written about the return in the deal
while noting, correctly, that general manager Pierre Dorion had
little leverage, since it has been an open secret for months
that Karlsson was available to anyone with a decent offer.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze the finer points of the
trade. What stands out, and what has been the obvious impending
result as the Senators slow-marched to this conclusion, is that
the team has traded a franchise icon, at 28 years old, for
whatever it could salvage. That almost never happens in the
National Hockey League, and the fact that it did is an
indictment of the franchise, and of Melnyk himself.

Ottawa
Senators Owner Eugene Melnyk after talking to a Postmedia
editorial meeting in Ottawa Wednesday Sept 12, 2018.

Tony Caldwell /
Postmedia

The NHL’s salary-cap system means that teams always have a
chance to wrap up their stars with long-term deals before they
reach unrestricted free agency. Of the top 16 contracts by
total value among NHL defencemen, only one of them involved a
player decamping for another team as a free agent, and that was
Ryan Suter, returning home to play in Minnesota. The Senators
have had ages to ensure that Karlsson didn’t get to the point
where they would lose him for nothing, and they failed to get
it done.

Only the big Swede knows exactly why things got to the point
where the Senators felt they had to trade him, but it’s not
hard to come up with a list of what would have been
contributing factors. Melynk has managed to alienate Daniel
Alfredsson twice, as a player and as a front office advisor,
with the not-so-big Swede departing the franchise both times.
The owner has also complained about losing money in Ottawa
whenever the subject of contract negotiations with a star
player is raised. The Senators have never been a team that
spends close to the salary cap under his ownership, and Melnyk
makes no effort to pretend that will change. When Karlsson
himself called the Senators a “budget team” a couple of years
ago, he knew what he was talking about.

When he isn’t running off fan favourites, Melnyk has managed to
roil what was one a loyal base in other ways, whether it was
cashiering the former team president, jacking up parking rates
at the arena in Kanata during the playoffs, or making
relocation threats and then acting surprised that anyone takes
those threats seriously. When the team was taking part in the
league’s centennial-celebration outdoor game last December,
Melnyk managed to take the rare happy moment in a lost season
and dump all over it. He mused about moving the team, and in an
underrated part of that television interview, even griped about
whether the plans for a new downtown arena were worth seeing
through. That came as he was in the middle of trying to
finalize a proposal with the National Capital Commission for
that downtown arena. It has not gone unnoticed among
politicians in the Ottawa area that even as Melnyk bargains
with them in (allegedly) good faith over the arena plans, he
drops hints that the team still has other, unnamed options.

That arena deal is still a long way from finalized, only now
Melnyk will be selling it — and trying to get whatever public
subsidy he can squeeze out of various levels of government —
while operating a team that has gone straight into rebuild
mode. And traded away its first-round pick for 2019 last
season.

If the many words Melnyk has said this week are to be taken
seriously, then the Karlsson trade is the first of many such
deals: veterans out, picks and prospects back in. Advertising
this strategy ahead of time, as Melnyk has done, will only make
the work harder for his general manager. At least Dorion is now
used to working with zero trade leverage.

The only person sure to stay, at least according to Melnyk, is
himself.

Pity the Senators fans, for that.

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