Senators mailbag: Ryan Reynolds’ interest, frustrated fans, and Erik Karlsson’s HOF chances

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On Thursday morning I had a chance to ask D.J. Smith how he would assess the team as they approached the 10-game mark of this season.

Keep in mind this was a few hours prior to the club’s meeting with the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I would say going into this, after 10 games we wanted to be at least 5-5,” Smith acknowledged.

Unfortunately for Smith and the Senators, they were unable to reach that goal thanks to a 5-4 loss to the Golden Knights. The Senators are now on a four-game losing streak, which has erased the good vibes and energy of the four-game winning streak that preceded it.

After 10 games, the Senators have a series of questions swirling around the club. And it’s why I figured this was a perfect time to open up the mailbag and answer some of yours.

I received almost 100 questions on a wide range of Sens-related questions. So let’s get right into it because there is so much to unpack this week. And yes, we’re going to talk Ryan Reynolds. (Which is not a sentence I expected to type earlier this week).

Who is buying the Senators? – Duff S.

I had so many ownership-related questions in this week’s mailbag, but I like this blunt question from Duff.

If you require a brief overview of the situation, I wrote a story on where things are at with the Senators potential sale earlier this week. 

Of course, that was before the People Magazine story broke on Wednesday stating that actor Ryan Reynolds has a potential interest in being an owner in Ottawa.

And Reynolds certainly didn’t dismiss the idea when it was brought to his attention by a Sens fan on social media.

The Reynolds angle is certainly intriguing, especially when you consider he has personal ties to Ottawa. He briefly lived in a high-rise apartment in the Vanier area in the east end of the city when he was 13 years old. And Reynolds currently has some experience in the sports world as a part-owner of the Wrexham AFC soccer club in Wales. (Senators fans who are interested in Reynolds’ ownership style and personality should probably watch the “Welcome to Wrexham” docu-series that chronicles the inner workings of the soccer team. It’s available on Disney+ in Canada. Just make sure your content settings on the app allow you to watch Rated ‘R’ programming, otherwise it won’t show up as an option for you to watch. Because yes, there is a lot of profanity).

When Reynolds’ name was brought up by reporters in the Ottawa dressing room on Thursday morning, the eyes of the players and coaches lit up.

“I read a little bit here and there yesterday,” Tim Stützle said with a smile. “I mean it’s pretty exciting times. I’ve watched a couple of his movies and he’s a pretty funny guy. So it’s great to see those things out there.”

When D.J. Smith was asked if he was a fan of Reynolds at the conclusion of his press conference on Thursday, the head coach cracked a joke.

“Clearly I am. He’s my favourite,” Smith said to a roomful of laughter.

Smith then joked he would have said the same thing if Robert DeNiro was rumoured to be the next owner.

But as distracting as all of this can be, the main takeaway here is there are multiple suitors who are lined up to make a serious offer to purchase the Senators. For more than a year, I have written there are multiple groups that were willing to purchase the Senators and keep them in Ottawa. Reynolds is yet another name we can add to the list.

If the Senators and NHL were hoping to create a buzz and subsequent bidding war around the sale of the team, they must be thrilled at Reynolds’ emergence. The 46-year-old has legitimate Hollywood appeal and a likability factor that is off the charts for most fans.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in November when the process of selling the team is expected to really heat up. On Friday morning, the team issued a press release stating that a “process has been initiated for the sale of the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club.”

As part of the statement, the club wrote, “This was a necessary and prudent step to connect with those deeply interested parties who can show us what their vision is for the future of the team. A condition of any sale will be that the team remains in Ottawa.”

The club using the phrase “deeply interested parties” confirms there are multiple groups prepared to make an aggressive offer.

There are certainly some of those parties who are further ahead in that process and we should probably expect to see one of them reaching out to the Reynolds’ camp to explore the idea of a partnership. Any group would probably be salivating at the notion of being aligned with an A-list Hollywood celebrity who wants to purchase an NHL franchise.

And for the record, I don’t believe Daniel Alfredsson has officially aligned himself with any ownership group at this point in time. I think he’s waiting to see how things unfold before committing himself to one group.

So for now, Senators fans can absolutely dream about a potential Ryan Reynolds-Daniel Alfredsson collaboration. And let’s be honest, after some of the stuff you’ve had to endure, you probably deserve those vibes.

Am I being too cynical? It seems like the goodwill bought by trades, signings, and past players like the Alfie puck drop were meant to showcase the organization for potential buyers. Now that the core is in place, is the spending going to stop, meaning no trade for a RHD is coming? – Andrew G.

I think you are being a touch cynical Andrew, but I understand where you’re coming from. After watching this team play without Artem Zub, it’s painfully obvious they need some help on the back end. We felt that way when Zub was in the mix and that sentiment is only amplified in his absence. They’ve played three games without him and given up 14 goals. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Now, I do think the Senators have a chance to use some of the LTIR money on Josh Norris to improve the roster this season. If they had reached their internal budget number, this does allow them to have a bit more flexibility. Granted, losing Norris for several months is not the price you want to pay for some financial flexibility.

I’ve written this in other columns, but I’ll reiterate it here: I want to see where this team is after 20 games. I didn’t love some of the stuff I saw during that road trip, but they were a pretty dominant possession team at other times this season. And while they lost to Vegas on Thursday, they did manage 46 shots on goal.

So I’m willing to be a little bit patient. If they can’t or won’t make a trade to add a defenceman — and some of these breakdowns continue — then I think they need to explore their internal options right now.

To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see the club recalled Jacob Bernard-Docker on Friday. On Thursday, Smith was asked about the possibility of promoting somebody from the AHL.

“Pierre and this development staff have done a really good job at developing these players and if they don’t want to recall them, it’s because they feel it might affect their development,” Smith said on Thursday. “But at some point, we’ve got to do what’s right. And if we think players are clearly better, I’m sure Pierre will make that decision.”

So perhaps we’ve reached that point where they feel Bernard-Docker is an upgrade in what they currently have in the top six. Once Zub returns to the lineup — hopefully next week — I would love to see the following pairings tried out for a handful of games:

Chabot – Bernard-Docker

Sanderson – Zub

Brannstrom – Hamonic

Again, let’s see where we’re at at the 20-game mark later this month. If this team is still scuttling along and having defensive issues that haven’t been addressed, I think you have every right to be cynical.

Ian, why would I be optimistic about this season? Give me reasons to hope. I polished up the TV screen and sanitized the remote in preparation for this season, and now … mediocrity. – Robert M.

At the start of the season, I think the realistic expectation for this team was to finish with 85-95 points and try and hang around the playoff hunt into the month of March. And one thing we wanted to monitor was how this team started the season. They’ve taken themselves out of the playoff race early in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago, it was a disastrous 1-8-1 start and last year, Ottawa won only four times in its first 20 games.

We’re only 10 games into this season and they’re not out of the race completely. But this is certainly underwhelming.

I think these next 10 games are crucial for setting the tone for the rest of the season. For now, I would say it’s important you keep your optimism. The Sens play five of their next seven games at home. And how they fare in those games against Philadelphia, Vancouver, the New York Islanders, Buffalo and New Jersey will tell us a lot about this team. These are five opponents that should be within Ottawa’s weight class.

If Ottawa comes out of this stretch of games with an abysmal record, I think it’s totally fair to lose the optimism. Right now, I’d say hang onto it if you can. There is plenty of time for cynicism — I just don’t think I’m there quite yet.

We’re already in last in the Atlantic. Just how good is this division and how much emphasis does that mean we need to put on all divisional games this season? It’s starting to feel like the NFL with respect to the importance of divisional games! – Greg L.

Sometimes it feels like the Atlantic Division is the Group of Death in the World Cup draw.

With their 10-1-0 start, it feels like the Boston Bruins are a playoff lock. And I can’t see any scenario where Tampa Bay misses the playoffs. I *think* Toronto and Florida are talented enough to make the playoffs, but I will concede they’ve both got question marks right now.

The worst part of all of this is that Buffalo is having the type of start Ottawa fans were dreaming of having themselves. The Senators are 1-4-0 within the Atlantic Division and somehow they managed to hand Boston their only regulation loss in the process.

Aside from their poor division record, the most worrisome thing about Ottawa has been its inability to scratch out points and take games to overtime. Go back and think about each of their six losses so far this season. On each occasion, the game was up for grabs in the third period with Ottawa pressing to score the tying goal in the dying minutes. And not once did they come through with the equalizing goal to push it to overtime.

The Senators are 4-6-0, which is tough, but I think we’re having a different conversation if their record was 4-4-2 right now. This Atlantic Division is too deep to just be leaving points on the table like this. And pretty soon, some of these teams are going to pull away from Ottawa in the standings if they don’t put together a string of games where they are racking up points themselves.

Sens need another defenseman and Erik Karlsson seemingly is back. Let’s run some hypothetical trade scenarios. – Devon H.

Saying Erik Karlsson is seemingly back is an understatement. In case you haven’t been staying awake to watch the West Coast games, Karlsson is on fire to start this season. He’s already scored nine goals, which is as many as he had during his final full season in Ottawa in 2017-18 (71 games).

But before we start this hypothetical exercise, we need to keep in mind that Karlsson told our Corey Masisak in a recent Q&A that he has no intention of asking for a trade out of San Jose.

“No, I committed here a long time ago. It didn’t work out the way we wanted it to early on. There’s a lot of things that probably played into that. I’m not going to get into details about that,” Karlsson said in the story published Sept. 7. “But I am excited for the future here now. I hope we can move in the direction to be successful again. Is that going to be this year? I mean, who knows? But I do think something good can come out of here.”

The Sharks are off to a slow start, so maybe Karlsson will change his mind. But you’d have to think that he’s enjoying this level of personal success right now and doesn’t want to mess with it. He sounds genuinely happy to be in San Jose.

For the purposes of Devon’s hypothetical exercise, let’s examine Karlsson’s contract. He has four more years after this one, which carries an AAV of $11.5 million through the 2026-27 season. The Senators aren’t a ceiling team, but if they absorb Karlsson’s contract at full freight, they could be breaching the upper limit. Next season, for example, CapFriendly lists the Senators as having roughly $21.7 million in available cap space. But the Senators still need to re-sign the likes of Artem Zub, Shane Pinto and maybe even Cam Talbot.

If Karlsson is taking up half of that available space, it doesn’t leave the Senators with a lot of wiggle room.

Now, if San Jose is willing to eat half that salary, we’re having a different conversation. Karlsson has vaulted himself back into the Norris conversation in the early part of this season and is certainly playing closer to $11.5 million than $5.5 million. So if he’s playing at this level, I don’t think San Jose would view this transaction as a mere salary dump. They would want something decent in return if they’re eating more than $5 million in salary each year on Karlsson’s deal.

I don’t think Ottawa fans would want to part with a player like Shane Pinto, but you’d have to imagine he’d be the type of player San Jose would covet. Or at least they’d be targeting a player of that calibre as a starting point for negotiations. I don’t think the Senators would do a Thomas Chabot for Erik Karlsson one-for-one deal, but maybe that’s something San Jose would want considering Chabot is almost seven years younger.

Basically, I think San Jose would want to get more for a player like Karlsson than they did for Brent Burns. When they traded Burns to Carolina, they retained roughly one-third of Burns’ $8 million salary, but all they got from the Hurricanes was a third-round pick, an AHL goalie and a forward prospect. If Karlsson is playing at this level, it seems unlikely that San Jose is just doing a similar salary dump.

One other thing that’s worth mentioning is that Karlsson has a full no-movement clause, which means he holds the power to choose his next destination. Would I think he could ever come back to Ottawa? I do, especially if there is going to be a new ownership group and direction of this team. I think Erik genuinely loves this city, so I would never close the door on a return down the road.

The NHL recently posted about Erik Karlsson’s Hall of Fame chances. I feel that he was under-appreciated in Ottawa. Alfie was known as a playoff warrior post-2007,  but Karlsson should have had similar regard. Came back from the Achilles’ heel injury in just three months in 2013 and then he played on one leg in the 2017 playoffs, which he did get recognized for. But I worry that EK65 doesn’t fit the mold that old school HOF voters look for. So can Karlsson make the Hall of Fame?- Christopher R

When I try to assess the impact of players’ careers, I like to take their best five years and see what they looked like compared to their peers.

There was a window from 2012-2017 where Erik Karlsson was a dominant defenceman and in the conversation as the best player in the game. He won a Norris Trophy on his entry-level contract in 2012 and then played arguably his best hockey while playing through an injury in the 2016-17 campaign. In that window, Karlsson won another Norris Trophy (2015) and was runner-up on two other occasions. He was a first-team All-Star four times too. To remember how good Karlsson was in the spring of 2017, just re-watch this terrific video essay from Michael Farber, which beautifully captures the essence of Karlsson’s dominance.

The worst part with Karlsson is the “What if” question that looms over his career. What if his Achilles’ tendon wasn’t severed that night in Pittsburgh? What if he didn’t have that ankle/heel injury at the end of the 2016-17 season? In both spots, Karlsson was playing the best hockey of his career and was a dominant player. I think he wins another Norris Trophy or two if he’s healthy and then the Hall of Fame isn’t even a debate.

But in some ways, the debate should already be closed.

Every NHL defenceman who has won the Norris Trophy twice is in the Hall of Fame. There was some considerable debate around Rod Langway, but he eventually got in about 10 years after he retired. In my estimation, Karlsson should be assessed by Hall of Fame voters in the same way that great players like Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Cam Neely were viewed.

All of them had remarkable careers that were hampered by injuries. None of them were first-ballot of Hall of Famers, but if you took them at the peak of their careers, you would probably concede they were more than worthy of enshrinement.

Whenever Karlsson’s time comes for Hall of Fame eligibility, I hope the voters remember the dynamic, explosive and charasmatic defenceman who thrilled Ottawa fans in that five-year span. Just based on that five-year window alone, Karlsson should get into the Hall of Fame.

Hi Ian, I believe the three worst defining moves in the franchise were: 1) Keeping Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara, 2) Trading Marian Hossa for Dany Heatley 3) Not trading Craig Anderson when we had Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner in the system. What are your top three worst moves in Sens history? – Alex C.

This is a tough question. But after putting on my thinking cap, I’ve settled on the following:

  1. Not trading for a legitimate goaltender in 2006. I think the Senators should have won a Stanley Cup in 2006, with a roster that featured Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat with Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. Dominik Hasek went down with his adductor injury at the Olympics and general manager John Muckler probably should have acquired some goaltending insurance at the trade deadline. The Oilers traded for Dwayne Roloson at the March deadline and he backstopped them to the Cup Final. I think it was unfair to thrust a young Ray Emery into the playoff pressure cooker that spring with a Stanley Cup calibre roster. If Ottawa gets some goaltending insurance, maybe they’ve got a Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters of Canadian Tire Centre.
  2. Not landing Gary Roberts in 2007. The following year, Ottawa had another great team. And while they reached the Cup Final against Anaheim, I think they could have improved their odds with Gary Roberts instead of Oleg Saprykin as their main deadline acquisition. It just felt like maybe Roberts could have given them a psychological edge when that series against Anaheim was going off the rails.
  3. Letting Daniel Alfredsson walk out the door in 2013. There is an argument this should be No. 1 on the list, as I truly believe this one had a ripple effect on the organization for years to come. The Senators had just made consecutive playoff appearances in 2012 and 2013. They had a good nucleus of talented players including Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Mika Zibanejad. They should have been a legitimate playoff threat, but instead plunged into years of mediocrity after Alfredsson left. It was a public relations disaster that has taken almost a decade to fix. I think it affected the organization on the ice, but the off-ice impact was far greater.

Noticing over the years how many goalies didn’t hit their dominance until their late 20s, pushing 30. The list goes on and on. Craig Anderson was an example in Ottawa and now Forsberg is emerging as another. Is this a typical pattern in an NHL goalie? – Robert M

This is definitely a pattern we’ve seen develop over the years. While skaters generally hit their peak years of offensive production between the ages of 22-25, goalies blossom a little bit later.

Let’s take a look at Vezina Trophy winners since the 2004-05 lockout. The average age of Vezina winners in that span is 29.6 years of age. The average age of Hart Trophy winners as league MVP is 24.6 — a full five years younger.

Only two Vezina winners — Sergei Bobrovsky (2012-13) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2018-19) — were under the age of 25 when they won the award. And both of them were 24 years old in those respective seasons. Meanwhile, we’ve seen four goalies over the age of 35 win the Vezina since 2006, including Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury.

So Ottawa’s tandem of Anton Forsberg and Cam Talbot might seem old, but they’re very much inside the peak window for a goaltender. I don’t think the paths of Anderson, Forsberg and others are atypical. If anything, the goalies who have tremendous success before turning 25 are the exceptions, not the rule.

This all makes for an interesting backdrop for how the Sens plan to bring along a goalie prospect like Mads Søgaard. The netminder is still only 21 years old, so realistically speaking, he’s probably still four or five years away from being a consistent and dependable goalie at the NHL level.

This is the team’s 30th anniversary, but it sure doesn’t feel like they’ve acknowledged it at all. They had the logo reveal in a pre-season media thing that was nice, but since then, nothing. No special merchandise or a theme night or anything. Do you have any idea why this is the case? Seems like a missed opportunity for more fan engagement. – Sean P.

I think there was an intentional effort from the hockey club to stay away from the 30th-anniversary stuff during the first homestand. I think they wanted the focus to be on the current product and roster.

But I think we’ll see an increase in the anniversary-related material in the home games moving forward. I know they have been working with the alumni group to try and build in some stuff during the year. Anthony LeBlanc mentioned the possibility of the Senators having a night to honour the 2007 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. In addition to that, I would love to see the following teams, players and figures honoured this season:

  • The entire team from the 1992 opening night game against Montreal
  • The 1996-97 team that made the playoffs for the first time
  • A night where all the former captains can get together, ideally when Karlsson and the Sharks pay a visit in early December
  • Bruce Firestone and Rod Bryden acknowledged in some fashion
  • Jacques Martin added to the Ring of Honour

What I’d also love to see: A countdown of the 30 best moments in franchise history. They could start this on Nov. 19 against New Jersey when the club has 30 home games remaining.  Each night, you take some time in the intermission to play a video of an amazing moment in Sens history. Maybe it’s the night Matt Carkner scored in triple OT to keep the Sens alive. And then you bring Carkner onto the ice, do a little interview with him and let him soak in the love from the crowd. It would be great to watch the buildup and hype as they reached moment No. 1, which I suspect would be Alfredsson’s goal to put Ottawa into the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.

And if we’ve learned anything so far this season, it’s that the Canadian Tire Centre goes wild whenever Alfredsson is in the house.

(Photo: zz/John Nacion/STAR MAX)