Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 02/22/12 at 01:09 PM ET
In only his third NHL season, Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson is quickly becoming one of the league’s elite blueliners.
A smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman, the 21-year-old Karlsson is having the best season of his young NHL career. As of February 22, his 43 assists and 57 points already exceed the 32 assists and 45 points of his sophomore season, placing him atop the league leaders in points for blueliners by a wide margin.
Karlsson’s performance is among the key factors in the Senators surprising season, as they continue to confound pre-season expectations by remaining in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
He’s become the offensive blueliner they’ve been lacking since Wade Redden’s salad days, and if he stays healthy, will easily break the team record for most points in a season by a Senators defenseman (63).
Team owner Eugene Melnyk was ebullient in recent praise for the young Swede, telling a Toronto radio station Karlsson could “go down in history with great defenseman of all time”.
High praise indeed, but also strong ammunition for Karlsson’s agent to use in contract negotiations with GM Bryan Murray at season’s end.
Karlsson is coming off an entry-level contract, and his performance over that period - particularly this season - puts him in line for a significant raise above the $1.3 million (base salary and performance bonuses) he’s earning this season.
So how much is Karlsson worth?
If one goes solely by the performance of the past two seasons, it could be argued he’s worth as much as Buffalo’s Christian Ehrhoff (ten years, $4 million per season, though the bulk - $37 million – is paid out in the first seven years), who never reached the single-season numbers Karlsson is currently putting up.
Another comparable could be Florida’s Bryan Campbell, currently midway through an eight-year, $57.143 million deal paying him $7,142,875 million per season.
Like Ehrhoff, Campell has never put up season numbers equal to Karlsson’s, and currently trails the young Senator by 17 points among the league’s blueline scoring leaders.
Problem is, those defensemen got their hefty contracts during their respective eligibility year for unrestricted free agency, so that rules them out as appropriate comparisons.
Since Karlsson is coming out of his entry level deal, a better comparable could be Washington’s Mike Green, currently in the final year of a four-year, $21 million worth an average annual cap hit of $5.25 million.
Like Karlsson, Green posted big numbers in the final year of his entry-level deal (18 goals, 56 points), and in the first two years of his latest contract, had back-to-back 70-plus point performances.
Both are renowned for their offensive performance, as well as facing criticism for their defensive play. If one goes by plus-minus, Karlsson appears to have improved his performance in his own zone this season, going from a plus-minus of -25 last season to +10 this season. That number, however, seems tied more to his improved offensive numbers and those of his teammates this season.
Perhaps the best comparable is Drew Doughty of the LA Kings, who last fall inked an eight-year, $56 million contract worth an average annual cap hit of $7 million per season.
Like Karlsson, Doughty was 21 coming out of his entry-level deal. In his sophomore season, he had 16 goals and 59 points, was a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning Men’s Hockey Team, and a nominee for the Norris Trophy.
His offensive numbers declined in his third season (11 goals, 40 points), though that was attributable to an early-season concussion.
Doughty also had better plus-minus numbers during his entry-level years, with a combined +33 in the final two years. It can be argued he’s a better, all-around defenseman than Karlsson at this point in their respective careers.
Still, Karlsson’s offensive numbers have steadily improved over the course of his entry level deal, rising from 26 points in his rookie season, to 45 last season, to a projected 75 for this year. His performance could earn him his first nomination for the Norris.
One can quibble over how Karlsson’s plus-minus numbers improved this season, but you can bet his steadily improved performance and Melnyk’s praise will be used by his camp to justify a substantial raise.
If you’re paying for potential, which is what general managers always do when they negotiate deals for young stars coming out of their entry level deals, it’s going to be considerable increase.
It’ll depend on how Melnyk and GM Bryan Murray approach this. If they were in the mindset of handing out big contracts as they were prior to last year, we could assume a lengthy deal (five to seven years) on an expensive, front-loaded deal, perhaps akin to that signed by center Jason Spezza in the fall of 2007 (seven-years, $49 million, $7 million per season cap hit).
Since last year, however, the Senators have been in rebuilding mode, refusing to toss big bucks at UFA players, sticking to bolstering their roster from within. Melnyk and Murray may not be as keen to spend as they once were.
What could also be a factor is the new CBA, which will be implemented by either September 15, 2012 (the expiry date of the current CBA), or in the weeks/months following, depending on negotiations between the league and NHLPA.
It’s rumored the league will seek to cap contract lengths to five years. The Senators could wait until a new CBA is in place before signing Karlsson to a new deal.
That, however, creates the risk of a rival club swooping in with an offer sheet this summer, which the Sens would in all likelihood match, but for terms least desirable to them.
That was a concern which hung over Doughty’s negotiations last year, yet he went the entire summer without getting a sniff from rival clubs, so the threat of an offer sheet for Karlsson could be an empty one.
Ultimately, the Senators aren’t going to stiff Karlsson, and it’s unlikely they’ll let him twist in the wind throughout an entire summer. Melnyk and Murray understand full well how valuable this young blueliner has been this season, and will be for their future.
Best guess is Karlsson is re-signed to a seven-year deal worth between $6-$7 million per season, depending on how the dollars are structured. If it’s front-loaded, they could come in closer to an average cap hit around $6 million per season. If it’s not, it’ll be around $7 million.
It’s expensive either way, but worth the price of ensuring Karlsson remains the anchor of the Senators blueline for years to come.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.