Ottawa may have his heart, but Erik Karlsson's aim is a Stanley Cup run in San Jose

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Friday, September 28, 2018

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The shock hasn't subsided for Erik Karlsson.

Being forced to relocate across a continent from a city that he loved, the only place outside of Sweden he ever called home. Swapping the red and black of the Ottawa Senators, the only NHL uniform he has worn, for the singular teal of the San Jose Sharks' sweaters. Moving into a beautiful house in the Glebe, a picturesque Ottawa neighborhood filled with shops and pubs, only to find out it's actually a summer home now.

"We just bought it, recently," Karlsson told ESPN last week, wincing his face like he just stubbed his toe. "It's kind of a shock. Once the reality hits you a little bit, there are a lot of emotions. But we're both excited to start a new chapter."

There is no "I" for Erik Karlsson in leaving Ottawa for San Jose, who stunned the NHL by trading for the star defenseman on Sept. 14 in exchange for players and draft picks.

There is only "we," as Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, are on this journey together, something Sharks GM Doug Wilson acknowledged in his opening remarks at Karlsson's introductory news conference in San Jose.

"When a family moves, it's the entire family. He and I and Melinda had a lot of conversations about that," Wilson told ESPN.

Karlsson said the move marks a significant change for both of them. Ottawa has been his home since he arrived in the NHL in 2009, embarking on a career that has seen him win two Norris trophies while amassing 518 points in 627 games. It has been Melinda Karlsson's home "for her entire life," he said.

"But she knows the business that I'm in. She's prepared for anything," Karlsson said.

The Karlssons have relied on each other's strength for years, but never more than in the past several months. They've endured unfathomable challenges, ones that went far beyond a hockey trade.

Erik and Melinda Karlsson were married in 2017, and announced in November there were expecting their first child, to be born the following spring. Karlsson excitedly posted on social media about the upcoming birth, sharing photos of his family as well as video of the couple's gender reveal party: Taking a slap shot and watching a puff of blue smoke to indicate they were having a boy.

On March 20, 2018, the Senators announced that the Karlssons had lost the child. Erik Karlsson would tweet that his son, Axel, was stillborn. He took a leave from the team, receiving an outpouring of support from fans, the team and peers around the league. He returned, solemn and tearful, to thank the community for its condolences.

"It's going to take us a very long time to get back to normal," Karlsson said at the time. "I think my wife has handled this situation better than I could have ever imagined. It was a very public thing, unfortunately."

The Karlssons' private lives were back in the public eye in June when it was reported that Melinda had filed an order of protection against Monika Caryk, the fiancée of Erik's Senators teammate Mike Hoffman, for allegedly cyberbullying the couple, including comments on Instagram posts. Ottawa traded Hoffman in June to the Sharks, who then moved him to the Florida Panthers.

Among the accusations: That Caryk had wished death upon Melinda's unborn child. Caryk denies the accusation and is seeking a legal avenue that would compel the Karlssons to share any evidence they have regarding the cyberbullying incidents.

"I'm not going to discuss any of those matters," said Erik, when asked about the controversy.

Simmering under all of this heartbreak was the uncertainty over his future with the Senators and, in turn, his family's future in Ottawa, a city where they met, got engaged -- Erik hid her ring inside of a pizza box -- and where they were married in 2016, at the National Gallery of Canada.

To say goodbye to all of this was, frankly, overwhelming for the couple.

But Wilson understood how overwhelming it was, because Wilson was in Karlsson's skates 27 years ago.

The pitch

Before becoming San Jose's longstanding general manager, Wilson was a Sharks defenseman from their inaugural season in 1991 through 1993. Before that, he had played for only one franchise in his NHL career, the Chicago Blackhawks, for over 930 games.

Like Karlsson, he won the Norris Trophy in 1982 as a dominating offensive defenseman. Like Karlsson, his status with the franchise changed as it veered off in a new direction -- for Wilson, that meant Mike Keenan cleaning house, when he wasn't publicly chastising Wilson for a lack of team success during his Blackhawks tenure. Like Karlsson, Wilson was moving out west with a wife who was born and raised in the city in which he played.

"I left Chicago after being there for 14 years. My wife was a Chicago girl. So here's Erik leaving the only city he's ever been in, with his wife being a hometown girl. The decisions that my wife and I had, those are the decisions they're facing now. So I shared that with [Erik]," said Wilson, speaking about the face-to-face meeting he had with the defenseman before the trade.

"I don't think it's so much selling him on [the Sharks]. You want to share your philosophy with him. He's a brilliant guy. I've always admired him as a player. He's one of the greatest players in this game. But as a person ... we spent a lot of time together. I was blown away meeting with him."

Karlsson said that meeting, and one with coach Pete DeBoer, did wonders for him.

"For me and my wife, it was extremely important to meet them. We played San Jose once a year. It might have been the organization I knew the least about," he said.

"It happened fast. Once we get settled in here, it's going to be fine. Ottawa is still going to be there, forever."

Of course, Karlsson thought he would be in Ottawa forever, too.

The trade

Wilson sits in an office covered in memorabilia from his playing days and from his tenure as Sharks general manager, which began in 2003. As he discusses the particulars that he's willing to share about the Karlsson trade -- which aren't many -- he slowly lets a stack of casino chips fall from his right hand into a stack on his desk.

The symbolism might scream "Doug Wilson, NHL Trade Gambler," which is undeniably true. Few general managers have taken the swings at the fences that Wilson has in the past 15 seasons: The Joe Thornton trade in 2005, the Brian Campbell and Dan Boyle trades in 2008, the Dany Heatley trade in 2009, the offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson that sprung Antti Niemi loose from the champion Blackhawks in 2010, the Brent Burns trade in 2011 and the Evander Kane deadline move last season.

Then there's the Karlsson trade.

"I don't know how Doug Wilson does it," Thornton said. "What he's done here for this franchise ... a guy like [Karlsson] comes along every 15 or 20 years."

Players like Karlsson are rarely available, but the situation presented itself thanks to Ottawa's sudden descent from a team that was one goal away from the 2017 Stanley Cup Final to one entering an awkward rebuilding phase. Karlsson's contract expires next summer. He was in line for a massive new deal, with the $11 million annual cap hit of his friend Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings as the touchstone. Expecting infamously frugal Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to meet that price was unlikely, especially with the sudden shift in the franchise's objectives. So GM Pierre Dorion began shopping him last season, coming close to a trade at the 2018 deadline. The Sharks were among the teams listening.

"Different trades have different timelines and journeys to them. This one ... when there are difference-makers involved, you always want to be a part of those conversations. So we actually started the process back at the trade deadline," Wilson said.

In order to gamble, one needs chips. Wilson had been stacking them for a few seasons.

"We planned this a couple of years ago. When you're trying to add a difference-maker -- and there aren't many of them -- you want to be poised to be able to activate and go after them. To do that, you need a couple of things. You need to have the cap space. You have to have assets and young pieces that people want," said Wilson, who credited his scouting staff for replenishing his prospect pool and the relocation of the team's AHL franchise in helping to better groom players.

You also need the financial and institutional support of your owner, and Wilson credits San Jose's Hasso Plattner in being instrumental to this deal.

"We forecasted that this was the window. And we were pretty public about it: We wanted a difference-maker. And you take your swing," Wilson said.

The Sharks had already tried to leverage that cap space to entice John Tavares to sign as a free agent on July 1, offering a passive-aggressive statement after he instead chose the Toronto Maple Leafs. ("Our own world-class players ... have continually chosen to bypass a chance at unrestricted free agency in recent years because they want to play in San Jose," Wilson wrote in a team-issued statement.)

For Karlsson, Wilson utilized his cap space and a collection of young prospects: He sent a first-round pick in 2019 or 2020, a second-round pick in 2019, forwards Chris Tierney, Josh Norris and Rudolfs Balcers, defenseman Dylan DeMelo and two conditional draft picks to Ottawa.

The return was deemed underwhelming for the Senators, but it was still a gamble for Wilson: This was a lot being swapped for a player who could walk away from San Jose next summer for nothing.

"Trying to do a deal like that without a contract, that's a hard thing to do," said Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose team had chased a Karlsson trade for most of the year. "Without a [new contract], there's a lot of risk. If San Jose gets him signed, then they did a hell of a deal. If they don't, then you've given up a lot of assets."

Karlsson won't comment on his future with the Sharks. He's still processing his past with the Senators.

The farewell

When Karlsson said goodbye to Ottawa at a news conference, he spoke extemporaneously. Nothing written. Nothing memorized. He was too stunned to compose anything.

"I don't think in my wildest imagination thought I was going to leave this place," said Karlsson, his voice creaking under a flood of encroaching tears. "It's their decision. They made it. And I have to respect it."

Karlsson hadn't spoken to Melnyk nor Dorion for over 10 months before the trade.

"No, we never discussed it. Obviously, I figured out which way they were going. It was fine by me. But we really didn't get into those discussions," Karlsson said. "They tried to move me from January on. I kinda figured I wouldn't be a part of it."

But there's a nagging disconnect between Dorion's and Karlsson's version of the breakup. The Ottawa general manager claims he wasn't sure Karlsson was out on a rebuild until after July 1, when the player ghosted the team after a contract offer.

"There was very little discussion on a contract from their side. We just felt that it was time to move on," Dorion told CBC Radio.

Would Karlsson have been a part of a rebuild in Ottawa or not?

The defenseman remains cagey about it.

"I never got the opportunity to get to that point. So, there's no reason to speculate if that would have been the case or not, because we never got to that. I'm sitting here [in San Jose] right now. And I'm excited about it," he said.

Also excited? The Sharks about Karlsson.

The future

Karlsson wasn't sure where he might end up, hearing teams like Vegas and the Dallas Stars were eager to ante up for him.

"It was harder in the beginning. You read a lot of the speculation, a lot of things online. But the longer it went, you just put that aside. There was no reason for me to get worked up or stressed out about it. I just lived my life, like normal," Karlsson told ESPN last week, during his first days with the Sharks.

The team that garnered the most interest was the Tampa Bay Lightning, fueled by Karlsson's obvious affinity for the franchise and desire to play with his friend -- defenseman Victor Hedman. (Please recall the two dressed as pirates during the 2018 NHL All-Star Weekend.) Karlsson said he's not sure how close that came to happening.

"I don't know. I read a lot of different destinations during the course of six or seven months there. So I'm not really sure how close it was to being anything else," he said.

In the end, it was San Jose. Just fine by DeBoer, the Sharks' coach.

"It was a great early Christmas present -- for me, at least," said DeBoer, who was delighted to rearrange some preseason plans to fit Karlsson into his lineup.

"We knew there was a chance. But when you're talking about a player of that magnitude, you don't think about having that kind of player until it happens. You don't want to get yourself too excited. So I was shocked, in an excited way."

Karlsson had a down year in 2017-18, but his down years are still better than the best years for most defensemen: 62 points in 71 games, with 43 of them coming at even strength. (This despite a 4.6 shooting percentage, the lowest since his rookie season.) His possession numbers relative to his teammates remained strong. There was talk that his ankle surgery in 2017 had slowed him, but he said this summer that it felt "110 percent good."

Karlsson joins what is now one of the greatest defense corps in the NHL. It already had the offensive flourish of Brent Burns, the rock-steady defense of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and strong contributions from Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon. Adding Karlsson to that mix elevates it on to the level of conference rival Nashville, whose blue line was considered the deepest in the league.

"He plays a lot. He plays in all situations. Everything that we look for in a D-man, he's got it," Vlasic said.

But with the addition of Karlsson, the Sharks are once again in a position with which Vlasic is too familiar: They're a championship-caliber team in concept, but not yet in execution.

"We're good on paper. We have to make sure we're good on the ice," he said. "It's funny. We have a good team every year, but when you don't win, people love to bash you. But we're competitive every year. And all it takes is one. You win once, and your team doesn't have to win for the next thousand years, and you're still a winning franchise. There are teams that are sitting in Stanley Cups they won in 1980 and '90."

In the short-term, Vlasic said he believes Karlsson gives the Sharks their best chance at the Stanley Cup, with a team he believes might be more talented than the one that made the final in 2016. But the long-term outlook for Karlsson in San Jose is, at this point, undefined.

"I'm just trying to be the best hockey player I am for this team right now. That's what I'm excited about. I think that everything else will follow suit," Karlsson said. "I'm not trying to rush anything here. I'm a day-by-day guy. I try to live each one to the fullest."

The collective bargaining agreement dictates that the Sharks can't offer Karlsson an eight-year contract extension until after this season's trade deadline. Meanwhile, both the player and the team will see if there's a fit, both from a hockey perspective and geographically.

Douglas Murray was a Sharks defenseman before joining the organization on the business side. A fellow Swede, he's one of the few people Karlsson knew in San Jose when the trade went down.

"I reached out right away," Murray said. "I was excited as a fan, as someone that's been a part of the Sharks family. I love the guy as a person and as a hockey player."

Murray settled in San Jose after his playing days and began extolling the virtues of the area to Karlsson when the trade was announced. They've spent a good amount of time together since Karlsson arrived in town.

"I shared a lot of things about the area, and I have more to share. I love this place. It's kind of a place that's tough to look at and say, 'Oh, wow.' It's not New York City. It's not L.A. You're looking at San Jose as a downtown, you might not see much. But the area is fantastic for so many reasons," Murray said.

Wilson wouldn't comment on any potential negotiations with Karlsson, but feels the Sharks' record on retaining talent they've acquired isn't coincidental. San Jose is a selling point. So is the team that plays there.

"My job as a general manager is to make this a place that players want to play. The history speaks for itself. The rest of it takes care of itself. Every player makes his decisions for a myriad of reasons," he said.

Karlsson feels the decision was made for him, rather than by him, when Ottawa shipped him to San Jose. Now he gets to make the call, for his family and for his career. Maybe it's San Jose. Maybe it's elsewhere. Wherever the Karlssons end up, Erik has made it clear in the aftermath of this dramatic trade: There is the place where they'll live, and then there's home.

"To all the fans, to all the people that live [there] ... Ottawa is a city that I will set my roots in and forever stay in," he said. "Even though I'm not going to represent [the Senators] anymore, it's always going to be my home."