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This is not Erik Karlsson’s fault

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The article nobody should have to write

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Carolina Hurricanes
A sight we’ll never see again
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t believe I have to write this article. The idea that anyone would think it’s Erik Karlsson’s fault he got traded is ludicrous. But we see him villainized on Twitter and Facebook, Gino Reda asking if Karlsson was the problem, and even our dear Ian Mendes writing that both sides are to blame here. So here we are.

Let’s remind ourselves who the players are here. On the one hand, Eugene Melnyk. Former billionaire who was found to lie repeatedly to shareholders to the point that he was banned from being in management of Canadian companies for five years, who’s been sued for refusing to pay earned bonuses, who’s had a rotating cast of executives over the last few years, who said he wanted to move the team in December then blatantly gaslighted season ticket holders at a town hall in April saying the media mis-characterized his words and would release the real video (which he never did), and who most recently has completely botched the Lebreton Flats negotiations to the point that

  • the NCC is planning to restart the whole bid process
  • Melnyk is suing his partner who was contributing more than 80% of the money for the project
  • the mayor is saying Melnyk asked for public funding of the arena after Melnyk clearly said he didn’t need and wouldn’t seek public funds
  • led to the most Trumpian yelling of “fake news” at anything you don’t like that I’ve seen outside politics in a long time in creating the Lebreton Flats Facts website which contains ridiculous “facts” like this one:

Quite the unreferenced, subjective “fact” there. On the other hand, we have Erik Karlsson. He was the best player in franchise history — and that’s not debatable, he’s the only player in franchise history who spent several seasons in the conversation for best player in the league at his position — he started an anti-bullying charity with his wife, put a bunch of work into encouraging dog adoption, and who did a bunch to connect with fans via his Tumblr and other social media until the team told him to stop. There’s a reason you don’t have a single comment from Karlsson out there dragging the owner or insulting management: he never said one. With the number of times Melnyk has publicly and blatantly lied, I have a very hard time holding Karlsson accountable for anything that’s transpired here.

“But he wanted to leave!”
No he didn’t. If you saw that leaving press conference, he bawled his eyes out. Maybe you think he was faking, but based on his previous acting experiences I’d say he’s not very good at it. He seemed genuinely emotional. He talked about how he never wanted to leave this city. I think he’d resigned himself to leaving, he knew Melnyk didn’t want him here anymore, but that’s very different from wanting to leave.

“But he was greedy about his salary!”
No, he said “I’m going to get what I’m worth.” Seriously, read the full comments. He said that he loves Ottawa, but he recognized that it’s a business not just for the owners but for the players too. You’d have to be the most thin-skinned employer in the world (to be fair, that could be Melnyk) to take that as an insult. Karlsson said he’d get what he was worth, not that he expected to be overpaid. I think any employee would agreed that this is normal. The fact that this somehow started the rift between Karlsson and management is outrageous. In any other profession, “employee wants fair salary” doesn’t get you laid off. I’m also confused by why fans always seem to side with owners in owner/player salary debates, but that’s an article for another day. After what the Sens did with some other franchise players like Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa, it’s more than fair for Karlsson to ask for what he’s worth.

“But he was an awful captain!”
This one I can’t speak as much to, but I don’t think you’ll convince me. People criticize him now for being too loose, but when times were good he got praised for it, like last year’s outdoor game. There are floaty rumours about teammates resenting Karlsson’s practice habits, but the thing is people get tilted whenever times are bad. Nobody resents Craig Anderson taking days off now with his workload, but they probably would if he wasn’t playing well. Nobody questioned Karlsson’s work ethic when he carried the Sens to the Eastern Conference Finals, but a year later with the Sens in second last, people started blaming him. It’s been said that a bad team blames its best players, and with Karlsson as the best player in franchise history... It’s like now when you hear people talking about how Connor McDavid should work on his defensive responsibility to make the Oilers better. Like somehow it’s not that Chiarelli traded the reigning MVP winner (Taylor Hall) for a second-pairing defenceman (Adam Larsson), traded a top-six winger (Jordan Eberle) as a salary dump to make room for a third-pairing defenceman (Kris Russell), and is now looking for scoring wingers and still a good defenceman. Look at the Sens in that ECF run; watch them with Karlsson on and off the ice (and imagine them without Craig Anderson). Imagine saying he’s the problem, that his 30 minutes every game of dragging the team to adequacy was the issue. Things that are “quirks” or “fun” when times are good become “annoyances” and “distractions” when times are bad. So no, I don’t believe that Karlsson was a bad captain. The fact that Ceci, Borowiecki, and Alfredsson all attended the launch of Can’t Dim My Light (not to mention all the teammates that attended his wedding) demonstrates that these players didn’t resent him the way the media makes it sound. And the fact that the legendary Uber video of teammates criticizing the coaches came out this season shows that leadership problems haven’t magically disappeared since he left.

In the end, I think many in the media will look for reasons to put Karlsson down for the rest of his career because the media is Leafs- and Habs-centric and therefore it’s cool to hate on a Senator, and because he was Swedish and was taking away from good Canadian boys like Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. For years, people said Karlsson put up points because he didn’t take the defensive side seriously like Doughty. Last year, Karlsson “only” put up 62 points in 71 games, and led all defencemen in points per game (min. 3 games played) and people said he was off his game. This year, he’s dominating possession, getting 60% of the 5v5 shot attempts, 57% of the 5v5 shots on goal, 57% of scoring chances, and people are decrying his lack of production (15 points in 26 games). He’s suddenly not scoring as much but (still) being defensively responsible, and people are still criticizing him. Forget that his teammates are scoring on 6.43% of 5v5 shots when he’s on the ice (vs 7.5% as the league average) and his goalies are putting up an .878 5v5 save percentage when he’s on the ice (vs. league average around .920). Karlsson’s 5v5 goals-for percentage is 42%, while his expected is 59%. He’s just been horrifically unlucky. But the narrative always has to be that he’s underperforming, so his expectations shift to make him fail.

And, amazingly, Karlsson hasn’t changed his habits. A year ago, he needled the media by going into the Lightning dressing room before a game when the rumours were raging that they were the frontrunners in trading for him. And yesterday, he opened his press conference by saying “The time is nigh,” the same phrase Ken Campbell used that caused Karlsson to walk out of a media scrum earlier in the week and set off a media frenzy. Even in the midst of people being critical and angry and emotional and accusatory, Karlsson is his same funny self, egging on the media, laughing at the circus that follows him around. That’s part of what made me love him in the first place: he’s unapologetically himself.

This has been a very rambly way to say that I don’t buy what people keep saying, that he was a bad teammate and somehow orchestrated his own exit. The primary reason he left is because the owner is Melnyk. And sadly, the owner is still Melnyk. I think there’s something telling in Mark Stone’s comments when asked about Karlsson:

At best, this is Stone heaping praise on his former captain. At worst, this is Stone setting the stage for what he wants for himself when he returns next year with another team because, let’s face it, the owner’s still Melnyk. None of the problems have gone away with Karlsson’s departure. The owner is still lying, he’s still angering fans and business partners and the municipal government and his own employees, he still has no money, the team is still near the bottom of the league, and the team’s two best players are primed to leave at the end of the season. And maybe the lingering problems are the biggest clue that none of this is Karlsson’s fault.