Karlsson drama should shape how Senators handle key UFA talks

Colin White scored in overtime as the Senators beat the Ducks 2-1 in Anaheim.

By now, Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion has a pretty good idea what chance he has of signing any or all of his pending unrestricted free agents, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

There is skepticism in Ottawa that he can sign any of the three forwards, and especially the pair he covets, Stone and Duchene, both deserving of max-term deals worth $8 million or more per season, plus signing bonuses.

There is also an understanding here that ONE of these pending UFAs matters, to the organization and fan base, above the others: that 178th draft pick out of Brandon, Manitoba – Mark Stone.

All things considered, the best-case scenario at this point is Dorion loads up whatever resources the team’s ownership can throw at Stone, pins the ‘C’ on him as the focus of the rebuild, and convinces Stone that Ottawa’s ongoing organizational dysfunction will subside eventually.

Dorion and Stone both have a very good idea if that is even possible under the current owner, Eugene Melnyk, who has so far failed in a bid to move the team downtown and is a lightning rod for fan unrest. If Stone has an ounce of faith in a brighter day here, he should be given the opportunity to carry the team flag through the rebuilding process over the next few years.

By all means, speak to Duchene’s representatives next week and take the temperature, but understand that as embarrassing as it might be to lose Duchene PLUS the 2019 first-round pick to Colorado used to acquire him, the bigger loss is Stone, the homegrown turnover-maker; the rare winger with a centre’s gift for making players around him better. Fans will stomach losing Duchene and Dzingel, properly moved for assets. Losing No. 61 so soon after No. 65 would make fans wretch. Worse, it would signal that the situation here is hopeless if this character player who loves the city bails on the franchise, either because it can’t afford him or can’t convince him the madness is over.

The Senators have to spend money somewhere, to ensure they reach the salary cap floor next season. At the moment, they have a projected cap hit of $44.725 million for 2019-20, according to CapFriendly. (Their current cap hit is $73.5 million). Clearly, there is a lot of room for premium talent, and Stone is the place to start. He has earned the organization’s best shot at keeping him.

However things play out in Ottawa as the Feb. 25 trade deadline looms, there are lessons to be learned from the disastrous handling of the Erik Karlsson situation last year.

Remember when Karlsson was No. 1 on the trade deadline leader board in late February of 2018? (This year Duchene and Stone are at or near the top). Fans in Ottawa agonized through that deadline, sighed in relief when Karlsson stayed with the Senators, only to be blindsided by his trade to San Jose in September, on the first day of Ottawa’s training camp.

The Senators lost the PR battle in trying to convince the fan base they made a serious offer and did all in their power to keep Karlsson.

The organization could do itself a huge favour by getting out front of the trade deadline story, as soon as it becomes clear that Stone and Duchene, in particular, are not going to be signed. Communicate with the fan base as soon as practically possible, rather than chase the story as the Senators did consistently and frustratingly in 2018, whether it was the Mike Hoffman/Karlsson online scandal, the handling of the Randy Lee affair, or the Karlsson "negotiation" (in quotes because there really wasn’t one) and subsequent trade.

Damage control and the “Senators have issued a statement” were constant themes of 2018.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Under no circumstances can the Senators afford to let Duchene, Stone and Dzingel walk away as free agents with nothing in return. There is no playoff scenario for Ottawa this spring, so there is zero consideration of keeping veteran talent for the post-season.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman surveyed current and former GMs asking how long prior to the trade deadline a GM needs to know if a player is not going to sign with his current club. The consensus answer – 14 days prior to the deadline. So the Feb. 25 deadline clock ticks that much faster.

Business decisions will soon be made.

In the meantime, evidence would suggest the Senators remain a remarkably close-knit group of players, considering how they could have mailed it in after falling out of the wild-card race in December.

Following Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime victory over the Anaheim Ducks, overtime hero Colin White (on a play set up by Stone), posed with a special puck, the game winner. Not for his personal trophy case, but a gift for a missing teammate and his new prodigy.

The name taped on the puck, held up by White in the visitors’ dressing room: Beau Duchene. White and his teammates had dedicated the OT goal to the first-born son of Matt Duchene and his wife, Ashley.

Beau David Newell Duchene was born in Ottawa on Jan. 9, 2019. His father now has tighter ties to the city than he did the day before yesterday.

Prior to the season, Duchene told Sportsnet, "we’ve got to do more things together as a group. We’ve got to be tighter."

Mission accomplished on that front.

Now it’s up to management to see how many key pieces of the group it can keep together.

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