The trade we had been waiting all summer for finally dropped last week when the Ottawa Senators shipped their captain and superstar Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks. But while this move had been anticipated by many around the hockey world for some time, especially in the lead up to last season’s trade deadline, Pierre Dorion said it wasn’t until after contract negotiations opened this summer that it became apparent a trade had to happen.
“Not too long after July 1 when there was very little discussion on a contract from their side,” Dorion said of when he knew Karlsson wouldn’t be part of the Senators rebuild.
Ottawa’s GM, along with COO Nicolas Ruszkowski, joined Robyn Bresnahan on CBC Ottawa Morning Monday to discuss the trade and its fallout amongst the fanbase. At the core of this trade was a decision made by Dorion in February, and signed off on by owner Eugene Melnyk, to set this team back in a rebuild.
Dorion explained that this doesn’t necessarily mean trading out every experienced player for futures, because a rebuild needs to be anchored by experienced veterans. He said the original plan was to keep Karlsson as one of those veterans, but when the window opened to offer him a contract the GM was uncomfortable with how slowly the negotiations were developing and the alternative — losing him for nothing via free agency — wasn’t an option.
“When we saw we couldn’t come to a contract agreement with Erik, and there was very little discussion, we just felt that it was time to move on. And at that point in time because we’re in a rebuild, maybe focus our attention on other leaders that possibly would want to be part of a rebuild.”
He continued: “We felt we owed it to our fans to tell them what the plan was and before the season started. At the same time we didn’t want to get nothing in return for Erik Karlsson if he was going to walk away from this team at the end of the year because our plan was always to rebuild and within that rebuild if Erik wasn’t going to sign here we knew we needed to get those assets to have as successful a rebuild as possible.”
Since the trade was made, a section of the fan base as been very vocal about how upset they’ve become with the direction of the team, and some have pondered a brewing confidence crisis splitting fans and the team. Less than two years removed from an Eastern Conference final appearance, Ottawa has now traded its best player and has two more of its top players, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, in the last year of their deals before becoming UFAs.
Making matters worse is that, although they’ve acknowledged they are rebuilding, Ottawa doesn’t have its own 2019 first-round pick, which was traded to Colorado for Duchene.
Despite this Ruszkowski doesn’t believe there is a crisis among fans. Citing a poll conducted by the team, he sees many as being optimistic that the youth the Senators are accumulating is already setting the franchise up for better days in the future.
“There is a very vocal minority that does have concerns,” he said. “They have no difficulty expressing their feeling, but the overwhelming majority, roughly 75 per cent, are in a place where they are confident with the direction of the team.
“What I’m excited about as a fan is that we have probably the largest pipeline of talent amongst young players I’ve witnessed since the team came to Ottawa in 1992, so I think that’s part of the reason we had fantastic turnout at fanfest yesterday is because people are starting to realize there’s a chance to see a young core of players with whom they can evolve and grow over the next few years.”
In a Twitter video released last week, Melnyk alluded to this rebuild, saying that while the team was in the “dumpster” now, this year’s roster would have 10 youthful players and that the number would rise by another five or six next season. Brady Tkachuk, Colin White and Logan Brown highlight the top rookie hopefuls trying to make this year’s team, while Rudolfs Balcers and Josh Norris — both acquired in the Karlsson trade — are still more than a year away.
Although Ottawa doesn’t have a first-round pick for the 2019 draft yet, they will have two in either the 2019 or 2020 drafts. It remains to be seen if either Stone or Duchene will re-sign, but if those negotiations dry up both will likely be traded by the end of February. Those hypothetical deals would, potentially, also add some key pieces for the future.
Any time a team goes into a rebuild, the fans’ trust of the GM and his hockey operations team directly correlate to their belief an improved product will come out the other side. And though the return for Karlsson was generally frowned upon, Dorion believes the fans are on board with what he is trying to do.
“Yesterday I walked the concourse at fanfest, not one person was mad at me,” he said. “I shook every hand. A few people said ‘we’re a bit disappointed Karlsson’s gone’ but a person said ‘we have faith in what you guys are doing.'”