Only two months after boldly predicting that Erik Karlsson would “go down in history as one of the great defenceman of all time,” Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is cautioning his 21-year-old star to be “reasonable” in his contract demands.
It’s an opening salvo that suggests the Senators are going to play hardball with their young star this summer, which could end up creating bruised feelings on both sides and even force Karlsson to hold out, like Drew Doughty did in his contract battle with the Los Angeles Kings last fall.
More dangerously, it’s also a signal to the rest of the league that there’s a chance to steal Karlsson by submitting an offer sheet the Senators can’t or won’t match — something like $10 million a season might do it.
This is not something Ottawa fans want to even contemplate.
They’re just getting over the last time the Senators decided they couldn’t pay a defenceman what he wanted and lost Zdeno Chara to the Boston Bruins.
In a year-end conference call with the Ottawa media on Monday, Melnyk said the Senators can’t go “toe-to-toe” in spending with the big-market teams, suggesting that players, and in particular Karlsson, will have to take a haircut to play in Ottawa.
“From our perspective everyone has to be reasonable,” said Melnyk.
“All we can offer is opportunity, and that is to be part of a great organization with a shot.
“If you want to be part of that, our doors are open.
“We can pay you, but it has to be within a reasonable budget.”
Karlsson’s agent, Craig Oster, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Given the salaries paid to top young defencemen, Karlsson’s range should be between $6.5 and $7.5 million.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman, a good friend of Karlsson, is on the low end of the range at $4 million a year.
Nashville Predator defenceman Shea Weber, who will also be a restricted free agent this summer, is on the high end at $7.5 a year.
Doughty eventually signed an eight-year contract for $56 million, while Buffalo Sabre Tyler Myers signed a six-year contract for $33 million.
With the 78-point season Karlsson had, and his subsequent nomination for the Norris Trophy, he’s probably in Doughty’s range.
General manager Bryan Murray said on Saturday that he wasn’t worried about negotiations and was sure they’d be able to strike a deal. Melnyk echoed that.
But he was hardly unequivocal when he said he hoped “everything works out” and that he was “hopeful” Karlsson would be part of the team’s future.
Another indication that the team is going to watch its bottom line carefully came when Melnyk was asked if he was prepared to increase his spending to bring in some free agents.
He said that with the “way things work out” — translated, that means with lower rookie salaries coming in, and some bigger salaries, like Filip Kuba’s $3.7 million, likely heading out — the team won’t have to spend much more than it did this year.
“(Murray) knows what we need to work and within what numbers we need to work and I think we can still get to a point where we fulfill those needs without breaking our bank,” said Melnyk.
The team ended the season with spending of $51.653 million under the $64.3 million salary cap, giving the team $12.648 million in room.
Also, this is the last season of buyouts to Jonathan Cheechoo ($1.166 million), Daniel Alfredsson ($700,000, part of a contract adjustment), and Ray Emery ($562,000), so that will give the team another $2.3 million in cap space.
Melnyk also took time on Monday to enumerate the team’s successes this season, from its 26 sellouts to the NHL All-Star Game.
He had praise for his players, and in particular for coach Paul MacLean, who had just been nominated for the Jack Adams award as the conference call began.
“It’s a well-deserved nomination,” said Melnyk.
“I can’t single out a player I’ve talked with (who doesn’t) see it as a completely different dressing room. This is a coach, a teacher, a mentor. He knows when to be tough, when to be the educator. That’s what coaching is all about.”
Melnyk also chimed in on the Alfredsson debate by saying while he hasn’t talked to his team captain, he would like to see him return for another season.
“There’s no question we want him back,” said Melnyk.
“The players want him back, the coaches want him back, the fans want him back, even his kids want him to come back, I’ve read.
“But at this point it’s a very personal decision. The one thing I’ve learned about Daniel Alfredsson in the nine years I’ve known him is that he doesn’t want to be a token player.
“He wants to play hard, he wants to play full out.
“We’re all hopeful his body says yes, his mind says yes, and his family says yes.
“We’ve already said yes.”
KARLSSON TO WORLDS: After insurance issues were resolved, Erik Karlsson agreed to join Sweden for the world championships.
He’ll join Ottawa teammates Alfredsson and Jakob Silfverberg on a Swedish team that now has to be viewed as the tournament favourite.