VANCOUVER – In ordinary times, the possibility of acquiring the best offensive defenceman in hockey would generate excitement, bordering on jubilation, among the fan base of the player’s new team.
On the West Coast, however, Wednesday’s report that the Vancouver Canucks had “stepped in” to the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes generated consternation, bordering on anger. If the Ottawa Senators actually trade the 28-year-old to the Canucks – highly unlikely – Karlsson will be the most unpopular superstar in Vancouver since Mark Messier left nearly two decades ago.
It’s not that anyone really dislikes Karlsson personally. After all, he is a two-time Norris Trophy winner who has averaged 71 points the last five National Hockey League seasons and is still at the height of his powers.
Sure, he seems to have been conditioned by the Senators to do whatever he wants on the ice and you wonder what responsibility he bears for the coaches who have been turnstyled through Ottawa. But if you ignore salary and age and simply ask any general manager in hockey if he’d like Erik Karlsson on his team, the answers would all be variations of “Oh, god, yes, thank you.”
These, however, are extraordinary times for the rebuilding Canucks and the problem with a Karlsson trade – or at least the biggest problem – is what Vancouver would be expected to surrender in exchange for the Swede.
While being awful the last three seasons, the Canucks have built the deepest, most talented stockpile of prospects in franchise history. The group headlined by Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, Jonathan Dahlen and Kole Lind, backed by NHL incumbents Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, is universally regarded as one of the best in the league.
Karlsson is exciting now. But Hughes, Pettersson and Boeser could be exciting for the next 12 years. They are the Canucks’ future, the ever-brightening light at the end of what has been an awfully long, dark tunnel. The idea that the Canucks might sacrifice one or more of these potential stars, plus next year’s first-round draft pick and other assets, for a short-term gain in Karlsson causes more than a little alarm.
Canuck general manager Jim Benning doesn’t divulge trade discussions with other teams. But he told Sportsnet’s John Shannon there is “no truth” to reports that the team is pursuing Karlsson.
Benning also reiterated to Sportsnet.ca: “I’m not trading the Quinn Hughes and Brock Boesers and Elias Petterssons. That’s not happening.”
That should be enough to quell the unrest, but it doesn’t do so completely. As we said a month ago when team president of hockey operations Trevor Linden abruptly left the Canucks after an unspecified ideological clash with ownership, the biggest uncertainty in the new landscape is about the chain of command and what happens to the rebuild?
Benning is all-in on the rebuild, willing to wait for his talented prospects to learn and develop and grow into impact players in the NHL. But without Linden as a buffer, Benning’s direct boss is now managing owner Francesco Aquilini, who may really like the idea of Karlsson coming to the Canucks’ rescue and selling tickets next season.
Karlsson, of course, would have to agree to go to a team, another Canadian team, that has been hopelessly out of the playoffs. And the Canucks would have to be willing to pay Karlsson something very like the $11-million-US per season that the Los Angeles Kings will pay Drew Doughty for the eight years near the end of his career.
That would be troublesome. But spending money isn’t as dangerous for the Canucks as spending assets. Any Karlsson trade will be a huge one. Owners are often involved in deals like that.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, the arsonist behind the dumpster fire underway in Ottawa, is already the most unpopular owner in the NHL. If the Canucks make a deal for Karlsson, Aquilini could give Melnyk a run for his money.