Karlsson, attendance issues shadow over Senators off-season

Erik Karlsson is hopeful he hasn’t picked up his last puck in Ottawa, but knows anything could happen, also comments on shaving his beard, but not touching his hair.

You can be the most optimistic Ottawa Senators fan and look at the turnarounds in New Jersey and Colorado and say, “That could be us.”

You wouldn’t be dead wrong. Whether its the Avalanche, Devils or the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, it seems clear losing doesn’t have to be a long-term proposition in the NHL any more.

Ottawa, perhaps, could be just like Philadelphia Flyers of a few years ago. The Flyers registered 101 points in the 2005-06 season, then plummeted to 56 points the next year. The season after that, they were back up to 95 points.

Here’s the problem with that kind of sunny outlook in Ottawa.

First, the Senators have hit this valley and created a new sense of disillusionment with their fans and unhappiness with owner Eugene Melnyk, who has suffered through a “Three Billboards” spring of his own this year.

Second, there’s the very complicated Erik Karlsson situation.

The Flyers, in those volatile seasons, didn’t have either problem to deal with. Oh, the fan base in Philly is always growling, but not to the point where they won’ t show up. When the Flyers did have to deal with contracts of their core players, it wasn’t until a few years later. They signed Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to long-term deals, then quickly traded them away.

Ottawa has attendance issues. A decade ago, they averaged 19,821 fans per game and were in the top five of NHL teams. This year, they averaged 15,829 fans per game, almost 20 per cent less than during the good years and about a five per cent drop off from last year.

That’s a lot of money Melnyk isn’t getting as a segment of his fan base calls for his head.

Karlsson, meanwhile, is a perplexing problem. He’s 27, coming off his least productive NHL season in a while, and he could walk as an unrestricted free agent after next season.

And, oh yes, the team tried to trade him away at the trade deadline, but couldn’t get the offer they wanted.

“I didn’t take anything personally,” Karlsson said on Monday as the Senators cleared out their lockers.

Perhaps that’s even true. The personable blueliner certainly tried to say all the right things, although some of them came out sounding a little funny, like when he was asked if he thought he had played his last game in an Ottawa uniform.

“It’s always a possibility that’s going to be the case,” he said. “It’s not what I hope for. It’s not something I plan on happening. But yeah, there is (a possibility).”

Asked if he could envision himself on being part of a rebuild in the nation’s capital, Karlsson said “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

So where does that leave the Senators? Do they have to choose between Karlsson, and a massive contract extension worth more than $100 million, and winning?

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What we know is everything went right for the Senators in 2016-17 when they got within a goal of the Stanley Cup final, and everything went wrong this season. We also know that based on this season, they’re playing in arguably the toughest NHL division, with Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto finishing with three of the top four records in the entire Eastern Conference.

The Sens were the second worst defensive team in the NHL this season, something head coach Guy Boucher focussed on, saying it robbed the team of the identity it had developed.

“We did try to go for more offence and we probably lost ourselves in between,” he said.

Boucher said it’s a “priority” to get better defensively. Goalies Craig Anderson (.898 save percentage) and Mike Condon (.902) didn’t shine, so getting better defensively won’t be easy unless the Sens can trade for a better netminder like Toronto did with Frederik Andersen.

There are definitely good young players in the system, although GM Pierre Dorion might have over-sold Thomas Chabot as a future “superstar.” If the Sens could win the draft lottery, and only Buffalo has a better chance, they could add a significant piece.

So maybe things aren’t quite as bleak as they seem. But that doesn’t solve the Karlsson issue, the most important one facing the team.

Right now, Karlsson only makes $6.5 milion, so he only eats up about nine per cent of the Senators payroll. It’s reasonable to assume that under a new contract, he’s going to eat up considerably more, probably something between 15 per cent and 18 per cent.

That’s a tough number for any team. It’s an impossible one for Ottawa unless Melnyk changes his view on how much he wants to spend on his club. Beyond that, Karlsson feels he got back to be more himself after Christmas, but he still wasn’t particularly good.

Committing to an eight-year contract with a player who may be a declining asset is a recipe for trouble, as Montreal is finding out with Carey Price and Shea Weber.

The easy answer would be to trade Karlsson for a massive haul in return. You know, something crazy. Like what the Minnesota Vikings once gave up for Herschel Walker, the kind of trade that could set up the Senators for years. Add that to Colin White, Chabot and Rasmus Dahlin, let’s say, and the Sens could be an up-and-coming young team again in a flash.

Two problems with that scenario. It’s unlikely such a trade is out there. Whoever makes an offer for Karlsson is offering cap relief as a major consideration in return. Maybe as the major consideration, like Pittsburgh was offering when the Leafs were moving Phil Kessel.

Second, the Sens have an awful track record on the trade market in recent years. The Bobby Ryan trade will haunt them, which is why the main reason why Karlsson wasn’t traded at the deadline may have been because no team was willing to absorb Ryan’s contract ($7.25 million cap hit, four more years.)

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You can see there’s no easy resolution here. They can’t look to their provincial cousins for inspiration. The Leafs were able to tank to get Matthews without worrying about it impacting the bottom line very much. Nobody got mad at Larry Tanenbaum. If Ottawa were to tank now, on the other hand, those Melnyk billboards could start multiplying.

This we know. The Sens have to decide, and probably by the draft. Even Karlsson said it’s got to be “one way or the other.”

Given that money has driven many Ottawa personnel decisions, the guess here is that Karlsson will be gone, maybe in a blockbuster deal involving Mike Hoffman or others. Stepping back for at least a couple of years, then trying to become a contender again makes sense.

But the mood is ugly in Ottawa. Doing what makes sense is going to be very, very hard.

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