Erik Karlsson owned the room the moment he entered it.
“The time is nigh!” cracked Karlsson, a huge grin on his face as he took a seat in a conference room overlooking the University of Ottawa’s main rink.
The line was a reference to the scrum-busting question that a Toronto reporter asked him after the San Jose Sharks’ 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday. While Karlsson wasn’t ready then to talk about his return Saturday afternoon to the Canadian Tire Centre to face his former Senators team, he was more than ready on Friday.
In superb spirits, Karlsson only said positive things about his former city and organization – gone was the raw emotion and shock that marked his departure in September when he was traded to San Jose on the first day of Senators training camp.
“It feels good,” said Karlsson, his hair slicked back after a spirited skate on the university ice. “I’ve been waiting for it. It’s going to be nice to come back. I have nothing but good memories here.”
Calm and relaxed the day before, Karlsson expects the emotions to flow when he faces the team that drafted him ten years ago, and made him its captain, the same Senators captaincy ruled with distinction by his great pal and ex-teammate, Daniel Alfredsson.
In recent days, local media have kicked around Karlsson’s captaincy a bit, suggesting the team practised less last season, because he wasn’t a fan of practice, and that the dressing room is more open and free this season.
Veterans Zack Smith and Mark Stone put that in perspective a bit. Smith described Karlsson’s leaving as a massive hole to fill, but one that created opportunity for others to share those Karlsson minutes. As to a more democratic room, Stone said that young players can be intimidated to speak up around a superstar like Karlsson – without him, the kids on the captain-less Senators have had to step up.
What can’t be doubted is the brilliance of Karlsson’s play for Ottawa for the better part of a decade. Never did he shine brighter than in the playoff run to the Eastern Conference final in 2017.
“I imagine the place will be nuts,” Smith said of the atmosphere Saturday. “He was one of the great players for Ottawa . . . if not the best to put on the uniform. It’s going to be exciting.”
There isn’t much doubt a packed CTC crowd will afford Karlsson a standing ovation. How he reacts, is not something he can rehearse.
“I don’t know really what to expect, to be honest with you,” Karlsson said. “I think it’s going to be a little bit emotional. How it’s going to play out, I’m not really sure. I haven’t tried to overthink it too much.
“There’s going to be a lot of things going on and I’m going to remain focused on the game, it’s a big one for us.”
Including the Sharks’ mediocre start to the season (12-9-5, tied for third in the Pacific Division), no one could have foreseen things shaking out the way they have since Karlsson was traded from Ottawa.
Trading Karlsson was considered the biggest news of the year in Sens Land, and yet in just two months, the transaction has been somewhat dwarfed by the blow up over LeBreton Flats, which threatens to keep the franchise from moving to a new arena downtown, and the infamous Uber video, which went viral.
Goaltender Craig Anderson had said he could do without the “drama” that unfolded last season, including the online harassment allegations between Karlsson and his wife Melinda against Mike Hoffman’s fiance, which exploded in the news in early summer.
Yesterday, Karlsson refused to answer any questions about that storyline.
In Ottawa, there has been plenty more off-ice drama this season.
And yet, seeing him in the flesh is a reminder that Karlsson remains a pre-eminent Ottawa icon — along with Alfredsson, both of whom butted heads with the ownership of Eugene Melnyk. The departures of Alfie, late in his career, and now Karlsson, in his prime, are a huge deal here.
There was no going over past troubles in Ottawa, a contract negotiation that went nowhere, nor does Karlsson, a pending UFA, care to talk about where he might be next season. The Sharks have a lot of veterans under contract, and must find room to accommodate Karlsson, but only if he and the Sharks can make some magic together in the spring.
Gone for such a short period, who imagined that this all-world defenceman would leave the rebuilding Senators and overnight be replaced so seamlessly by sophomore Thomas Chabot? With seven goals and 22 assists, Chabot has 14 more points than Karlsson’s 15 and is plus-one on a team with a minus-18 goal differential.
Or that Karlsson would join a contending team like the Sharks and see his point totals diminish?
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer says that theme is changing.
“He’s been excellent the last 15 games,” DeBoer says. “The points are starting to come, his defensive game has been real good. A lot of nights, he’s been one of our best players, if not our best. That transition stuff is all in the rear-view mirror now, at least on the ice.
“Off the ice I’m sure he’s still getting used to it.”
DeBoer doesn’t dispute Karlsson’s role has changed, after being the star of the show in Ottawa.
“He was the main option, the main weapon and a go-to guy,” DeBoer says.
In Ottawa, Karlsson often played the entire two minutes of a power play. With San Jose, Karlsson is not necessarily the first defenceman over the boards with the extra man. Fellow defenceman Brent Burns is the team leader in points with 26. The bountifully bearded Burns has three goals and 23 assists, leaving him three behind Chabot.
Karlsson’s time on ice is down from 26:44 last season, to 24:53, nearly two full minutes per game, proof he’s just another very good player on the Sharks.
“There’s been a least a handful of nights where Erik has totally controlled the whole game,” DeBoer says. “We’ve seen more and more stretches of that.”
The Senators will be determined that Saturday is not one of those games for Karlsson, who will soak it all in, as it comes.
“For now I’m just going to enjoy this, whether that is closure, I’m not sure,” Karlsson says.
“I came here as a young boy and I’ve spent my entire adult life here. I created everything I have for myself right now. I don’t think I would change anything. They (the city and organization) made me what I am today.”
Ottawa remains his “forever” place, Karlsson said, noting that his wife is from here and he will continue to spend summers here.
As he left the media conference, Karlsson hurried off to another familiar Ottawa area home – the Alfredssons.