Karlsson heads to Helsinki

Erik Karlsson isn’t heading home to Sweden after all. After revealing last week he planned to spend the NHL lockout playing for former squad Frolunda, the Senators’ star defenceman was instead scooped up by Helsinki-based Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League (SM-liiga) Wednesday.

Karlsson heads to Helsinki
Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators teases Colin Greening (not in picture) during the morning skate, September 17, 2012. Photo by Jean Levac/OTTAWA CITIZEN

Erik Karlsson isn’t going home to Sweden after all.

After revealing last week he planned to spend the NHL lockout playing for former squad Frolunda, the Senators’ star defenceman was instead scooped up by Helsinki-based Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League (SM-liiga) Wednesday.

The 22-year-old, who agreed to a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Senators at the NHL Awards in June, will play on a month-to-month contract in Finland while the players’ association and owners try sort out a new collective bargaining agreement.

Although Karlsson had been in touch with Frolunda over the summer, agent Craig Oster said Wednesday there still wasn’t enough clarity around whether or not the Swedish Elite League will accept players on short-term deals to work something out. The league initially said it wouldn’t do it, but the country’s competition authority ruled that was an illegal move. Still, nobody has made the jump.

That wasn’t an issue with Jokerit — Karlsson’s new contract terminates automatically when the NHL work stoppage ends.

Oster said Karlsson received many expressions of interests from teams, but felt the Finnish squad was his best option. The defenceman’s friendship with ex-Senators agitator and teammate Jarkko Ruutu, who currently plays for Jokerit, also factored into the decision.

“First of all, he was unsure if he wanted to go,” Oster said in an interview. “His priority would have been to stay here and skate with his teammates, and yet as that continued on, some players left the group and Erik felt that, in order to be best prepared, he was going to need to push himself a little bit harder and play at a higher level.”

The highest-profile member to leave the group of NHLers practicing Bell SensPlex is Jason Spezza, who last week signed on with the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers of the Swiss Elite League. Another of the high-skill skaters, Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux, suggested Tuesday he could be the next to take a flight to Europe.

Practice, as players often note during long lulls in the regular season, can get pretty boring after a while.

“When we talked about the possibility of going overseas, what became very important was to play at a high level in a place that had a really good training regimen on and off the ice,” Oster said. “We all felt really comfortable that Jokerit presented a great opportunity for Erik to go and work hard and play at a high level of hockey.”

Karlsson will head out on Friday and plans to attend Jokerit’s home game at the 13,506-seat Hartwall Areena Saturday. He’ll decide later whether or not to suit up, though the team expects he will be in the lineup.

In an e-mail exchange Wednesday, Jokerit general manager (and former Ottawa Senators director of player personnel) Jarmo Kekalainen wrote that his squad was thrilled at the pickup.

“Fans will be excited to see a world class player of this caliber,” he wrote. “Could be the first and last time Finnish hockey fans see a Norris Trophy winner playing in this league the year after he won the award.”

Karlsson scored 19 goals and 59 assists for the Senators last season, helping propel the team back into the playoffs.

Jokerit has been aggressive in courting NHLers so far — it also landed Detroit Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula recently.

“We will know more about ticket sales tomorrow, but there was a rush to see Valtteri Filppula’s first game here on Tuesday,” Kekalainen wrote. “Valtteri is ‘born and raised’ Jokerit player. I expect similar excitement for Erik.”

Uncertainty over the SEL’s willingness to accept locked out players was one hurdle for Frolunda. Money was the other: It’s extremely expensive to insure multimillion dollar NHL contracts. Insurance for Spezza’s deal is believed to be in the $50,000 per month range.

“They know I want to come home and I’ve been talking to them since the summer and now it’s just a matter of getting a solution done and making it work for everyone,” Karlsson said of Frolunda Friday. “I don’t want to put them in debt or anything. I want to make them a better team if I come. I don’t want it to be unfair for anyone.”

It’s a moot point now — Jokerit has agreed to cover any insurance costs as part of the deal.

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