OTTAWA — “The time is nigh” for Erik Karlsson’s return to Canadian Tire Centre.
On the eve of Karlsson’s first game in Ottawa as an opposing player — sure to be an emotional affair — the star defenceman opened his press conference with a bit of levity.
Two days ago Karlsson walked away from a media scrum in Toronto when a reporter used the phrase “the time is nigh” in reference to his impending return to Ottawa, but he earned a laugh from reporters by tuning it around as his opening statement on Friday afternoon.
Ottawa’s former captain and face of the franchise was traded to San Jose — a move once thought unthinkable — at the start of training camp in an eight-player deal that finally put an end to months of speculation regarding Karlsson’s future with the Senators. The reality of the stunning development will sink in further Saturday night when Karlsson and the Sharks take on the Senators.
Despite a disappointing end to his nine-year tenure in Ottawa, Karlsson says he has no regrets.
“None. I’ve had a great time here,” he said. “I came here as a young boy. I spent my entire adult life here … I loved it and had a great time and looking back I don’t think I would change anything. They made me who I am today and I’m thankful for that.”
Drafted 15th overall in 2008 Karlsson developed into one of exciting players in the league. He won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman in 2012 and 2015.
He had 126 goals and 392 assists for 518 points in 627 regular-season games and 37 points in 48 playoff contests with Ottawa. His status as a Senators legend was solidified when he led the them to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup final while playing on an injured foot and ankle.
Karlsson was expected to be a Senator for life, but a year filled with loss, both on and off the ice, left player and team impasse.
The relationship began to unravel a year ago when the Swedish defenceman said he wouldn’t give the team a hometown discount when negotiating a new contract.
“When I go to market, I’m going to get what I’m worth, and it’s going to be no less, no matter where I’m going,” he said at the time.
Rumours of Karlsson’s departure heightened in February as the trade deadline approached and while he wasn’t moved when the team finished second last in the standings and talk of a rebuild started fans began to fear the inevitable.
The last few months of the season were difficult as tragedy struck in March when Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, announced their first child, a son named Axel, had been stillborn.
In June it was revealed that Karlsson’s wife had accused Mike Hoffman’s fiancee of cyberbullying. Hoffman was subsequently traded.
The Senators made Karlsson a contract offer July 1, but in Karlsson’s opinion the offer was purely for optics.
“I think they made it very clear in what direction they were going with and unfortunately I wasn’t part of that and I respect that it’s their decision,” said Karlsson after being traded.
Life without Karlsson has been an adjustment for the Senators (11-12-13), though it has provided opportunity for others within the organization.
“It’s a big change, but we’ve had some guys step up,” said left-wing Zack Smith. “You look at the play of Mark Stone. He’s just taken his game and leadership to a whole other level to fill that hole. Whether he would have had that opportunity or expanded his role with Karlsson here you don’t know, but it’s nice to see a guy like Stone flourish with that opportunity.”
During the off-season Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said the “locker room was broken,” raising questions as to whether Karlsson failed as captain in uniting the team.
“It’s understandable the way the trade folded out that’s what would be the assumption, but I’m sure if you asked anyone in this room they more than enjoyed their time playing with (Karlsson) and learned a lot from him at the same time,” Smith said. “It will definitely be weird and I’m sure it will be emotional for him (coming back), but to say that all the drama and stuff and our struggling and not making the playoffs last year is based on one or two guys, that’s definitely not the case.”
Karlsson is certain to get a warm welcome in what could be the Senators’ first sellout of the season.
“I think he’s probably going to get a standing ovation,” said Stone. “I think he deserves it. I think he earned that with the way he played on the ice every night. He’s one of the best players to ever play in Ottawa so he deserves that.”
As for Karlsson, he’s not sure how he will feel when he takes to the ice for the first time as a visitor.
“I don’t really know 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 really tried to overthink it too much. I know it’s going to be a lot of things going on and I’m going to try and stay focused on the game. It’s an important one for us. I’m going to do what I always do and that’s going to be my best.”
Karlsson’s return comes exactly five years after Daniel Alfredsson returned to Canadian Tire Centre as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, when he too was unable to agree on a contract extension.
“That was a special moment for him and I remember it,” Karlsson said. “I’m going to see him right now so he can return the favour.”
Karlsson admits he’s still adjusting to life with the Sharks. Through 26 games he has just two goals and 13 assists.
“I think it’s been going as well as it possibly could have,” admitted Karlsson. “I have a great team. Everybody’s treated me real well and trying to make it as easy as possible for me and at the same time I’ve been trying to stay as focused as I can on the hockey part of things and try and get that going.”
Set to become a free agent at the end of the season, Karlsson is unsure what the future holds.
“Right now I’m worried about today and that’s kind of been the mindset all year and I think that’s going to be going on for a long time. I’m trying to stay as focused as I can in the present and the future and the past is nothing I can control.”
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press