Karlsson assigned to Binghamton: What's next for the rookie?

The Ottawa Senators just announced that rookie defenceman and 2008 first-round draft choice Erik Karlsson was sent to the Binghamton Senators of the AHL:

"The 19-year-old native of Landsbro, Sweden, made his National Hockey League debut on Oct. 3 in the Senators’ 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers and earned his first NHL point (an assist) in that contest. Karlsson has appeared in all nine Senators regular-season games to date, recording three assists and six penalty minutes."

Despite the writing on the wall for this decision, I'm still a little bit surprised. Karlsson wasn't the rookie sensation he was expected by some to be, but he still showed steady development over the course of just nine professional games in North America. He certainly hasn't been the worst of Ottawa's defencemen on many, if any, of the nights, and has actually played some steady minutes (averaging 17:25 per game).

The Senators, obviously, had three options: Keep Karlsson on his steep learning curve in the NHL, send him back to Sweden to play for Frolunda, and the option they decided to go with, assigned the young man to the AHL. There were reasons for and against any of them.

(Read a lot more about Ottawa's options, and what's likely expected of Karlsson in the AHL... )

In sending him to Binghamton, the Senators organization guarantees that Karlsson keeps learning the way the North American game is played: Smaller rink, bigger players, more physicality, and a faster game. But since it's a level down from the big-time, Karlsson may have the moment's reprieve in order to make the best decision he can with the puck in the defensive end, which has been his most significant issue, while also gaining confidence in his ability to take calculated risks on the offensive side of the puck. He won't likely be dominant in the AHL, but that split-second difference can mean the world to a player trying to learn the intricacies of the game. Plus, if his development really kicks up a notch, Karlsson is only a phone call away from re-joining the NHL squad.

Had he stayed in the NHL, the Senators would have been forced to live with any of the mistakes Karlsson made during the learning process, a potentially dangerous scenario for a team that's looked good so far, and is desperate to get back into the post-season. He would likely have been paired up with Filip Kuba,meaning that Ottawa's number one defenceman would have been as pre-occupied with backing up his partner as he would be in generating offence. Karlsson wouldn't have been an anchor, but he would have lessened the effectiveness of whoever he was partnered with. On the plus side, though, Karlsson would have had to sink or swim: Get used to the game, and quickly, or else.

Finally, were Karlsson sent back to Sweden, his salary would come off the books and the Senators would gain an extra year on his entry-level contract plus an extra year before he would become an unrestricted free agent. From the organization's perspective, though, getting him over to North America is likely priority number one for his development, and playing another year in Europe would have held back his development in a small-rink context.

What this decision may demonstrate, more than anything, is that Sens owner Eugene Melnyk is sick of paying NHL salaries to more players than he has to. Karlsson was one of only two defencemen on a two-way contract--surprising rookie Matt Carkner being the second--while there are six defencemen on one-way NHL contracts (plus half of now-waived Christoph Schubert's contract on the books). It's a justifiable concern for an owner whose pocketbook is undoubtedly feeling a hit from two springs of disappointing and non-existent playoff performances.

In Binghamton, Karlsson will likely quarterback the B-Sens' top powerplay unit, perhaps alongside Brian Lee. He'll play plenty of minutes, won't be as challenged by skaters as big or as fast as in the NHL, and may even grow into a player coach Don Nachbaur turns to when he needs a spark. Spectators in Binghamton should be able to expect a defenceman who makes simple, although not fancy, decisions defensively, but can open the ice right up with a brilliant pass.

For Ottawa fans, the relegation to the AHL is a mixed blessing: It means those in Ottawa won't get to see first-hand how Karlsson's development progresses, but it will be easy to find out exactly how he's doing thanks to pretty strong AHL coverage. It may be disappointing that Karlsson hasn't stepped in as the immediate impact player as some were hoping for, but many (myself included) had unrealistic expectations for the 19-year-old. In going to the AHL, playing more (and more meaningful) minutes in a league where he's got a good chance to put up decent numbers might be the best for his development at this point in his life.

That's the hope that Bryan Murray and Cory Clouston have, at any rate.

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