TORONTO — The Sept. 13, 2018 trade that sent captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks left the organization with a massive void.
But when the Ottawa Senators shipped away the face of their franchise, a two-time Norris Trophy winner who had carried the team to within a Game 7 double-overtime goal of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final with an ankle injury, it also left behind ample opportunity.
Opportunity for the haul of prospects that came back in the deal — and those to follow in other blockbusters involving Mark Stone and Matt Duchene — as the club stripped its roster down to the bones in a full-blown rebuild.
“The first thing that stood out to me (about the trade) was that there’s going to be a lot of opportunity and a lot of young guys that are coming up together. And I think you’ve seen a lot of it down here,” Norris said after the Belleville Senators’ 7-6 overtime loss to the Marlies in Toronto last Sunday.
“Just for example, we have guys like (Drake) Batherson and (Logan) Brown and (Rudolfs) Balcers and (Alex) Formenton and I can name off 10 other guys. So it’s kind of unique that we’re all coming up through it together. And like I said, it’s just been a lot of fun so far.”
While Batherson made the most of that chance earlier this year by staking a claim to a full-time role with the big club, the 20-year-old Norris will get his own shot Saturday as he makes his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens.
Norris earned the opportunity with his eye-popping first season in the AHL.
The 19th-overall pick by San Jose in the 2017 NHL Draft has 58 points in 51 games for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, good for third in league scoring and tops among rookies, after spending the last two years with the University of Michigan.
The six-foot-two, 192-pound pivot’s production this season is even more impressive given he is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, which the native of Oxford, Mich., suffered playing for the U.S. at the 2019 world juniors.
Belleville coach Troy Mann admitted Norris started slowly as he shook off the rust from the season-ending injury and the team dealt with its own struggles, but he’s proved to be a “high-end talent.”
“(I) didn’t know much about him prior to coaching him here this September, and he’s been real fantastic. His play (with the puck) is continually improved, and his play without the puck,” he said.
“But, in terms of his skill set, he can skate, he can shoot, he’s got good vision, very, very coachable and he’s a real good one as well.”
While Norris was surprised by the Karlsson deal — he was in the middle of a nap before practice at Michigan when he got the call from Sharks GM Doug Wilson — it opened his eyes to the cold and calculated side of the game.
“Stuff happens. It’s hockey. It’s a business. And I think, unfortunately and fortunately, I got a taste of that early in my career,” he said.
“So (I was a) little bit caught off guard, but I was really excited to be here and, obviously, things are going well, so I’m happy I’m here.”
It’s a topic Norris knows he’ll probably have to talk about for the rest of his career. Google the “Erik Karlsson trade” and his name is unavoidable.
And it’s an understatement to say the deal was initially met with disappointment from fans.
The relationship between team ownership and Karlsson was thought to be fractured beyond repair and the six-time all-star’s departure in unrestricted free agency an inevitability. But the return — which included forwards Norris, Chris Tierney and Rudolfs Balcers, defenceman Dylan DeMelo, a first-round pick in 2019 or 2020 (which jumped to the latter after San Jose made the playoffs), a second-rounder in 2019 and two conditional selections — was deemed inadequate, especially since the Sharks managed to withhold Timo Meier and prospect Ryan Merkley.
Though the Sharks made it to the Conference Final that season, Karlsson was hampered by injuries and only suited up for 53 games. He re-upped on an eight-year, $92-million extension last summer. But his 2019-20 campaign came to an end last week after he broke his thumb and the first-round pick — which was not lottery protected — is looking increasingly valuable to Ottawa as the Sharks’ season has tanked.
While it could be easy to get caught up in thinking about having to prove your worth in such a franchise-altering exchange, Norris hasn’t let it get to him.
“I always try to keep things even-keel and stuff happens that you can’t control. After that trade I don’t really think I changed as a person,” he said.
“I don’t know, maybe it helped me be in the moment a little bit more and appreciate where you’re at. You never know what’s going to happen and (you) just have fun at the rink every day. And I think I’ve tried to do that as best as I could, especially my first year.”
Despite the promising start to his pro career, Norris isn’t letting his mind wander too far ahead. But the opportunity is there for the taking in Ottawa.
“I don’t really like to (set) too many personal goals,” he said.
“I think they can kind of limit you, and that’s how my brain thinks. So we just kind of take it day by day and have fun and see what the day brings.”