When the Ottawa Senators sent rookie defenceman Erik Karlsson to the AHL back at the end of October, I praised them for making the right decision. Karlsson had been handed the easiest minutes on the roster and still had arguably put up the worst results of any defenceman on the team. Now, a month later, the Senators have opted to recall Karlsson at the expense of prospect Brian Lee, the ninth overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. It’s an interesting decision, and we should probably consider it in two seperate parts.

The Demotion of Brian Lee

I have to confess that I’m a little puzzled by this one. Karlsson and Lee are playing for the same spot – both of them are well down the list in quality of competition, and both of them get a lot of starts in the offensive zone. Lee wasn’t exactly lighting it up with such easy minutes, but he wasn’t struggling nearly as bad as Karlsson had, either. Both players had three points (Lee in 13 games, Karlsson in nine), but unlike Karlsson (who was getting outshot badly and out-scored six goals to two) Lee was pretty close to keeping his head above water; while he was on the ice the Senators outshot their opponents and were out-scored five goals to six.

Regardless, people like Allen Panzeri and Mark Parisi are wondering what this means for Lee’s future with the organization; both seem to think that somewhere in the next little while Lee is going to find himself somewhere else. I agree, and I think that whichever team picks him up is going to get a very nice prospect for less than full value. Lee looks to finally be coming around based on his play of late, and skilled defencemen with size and the ability to play a physical game aren’t all that easy to find.

The Promotion of Erik Karlsson

While I’m puzzled by the Lee demotion, I’m utterly baffled by the Senators’ decision to promote Karlsson. The Senators’ decision to play Karlsson in his 10th NHL game on Friday night means that the first year of his entry-level contract is now on the books and won’t slide another season. It also means he’ll be eligible for first restricted and then later unrestricted free agency a year early.

While there are cases where it’s defensible to do that, in this case the Senators are going to need to demote a defenceman anyway once Anton Volchenkov comes back from injury, and Karlsson’s the obvious choice, meaning that Karlsson is simply playing the role of stop-gap. Even granting that Karlsson is an upgrade on Lee when it comes to winning games right now (and I wouldn’t grant that) is he a substantial enough upgrade to be worth burning a year off his contract for just a couple of games? I can’t see it. There is another possibility, alluded to by the6thsens.com:

  1. The organization really thinks that Karlsson represents enough of an upgrade over Brian Lee to justify the move.
  2. Bryan Murray found John Muckler’s secret stash and is hitting the sauce hard.
  3. Chris Campoli’s one way contract trumps everything.
  4. Erik Karlsson has compromising photos of Bryan Murray, Eugene Melnyk or both.
  5. There’s a trade in the works to move a defenceman or two.

    While the first option is the most frightening, it’s probably the fifth option that makes the most sense here. If Karlsson is intended to be more than a stop-gap, and the Senators feel he’s a significant upgrade on Lee, then the move makes a certain sense. On the other hand, one could argue that his development was being accelerated by playing a varied role in the AHL; one he won’t be playing in the NHL, as per Cory Clouston:

    “They put him in some situations where he had to be on the ice in the last few minutes, so defensive mistakes were important to eliminate. Just being in that kind of pressure situation should help him out a lot.”

    “We’re not going to use him on the penalty kill and, more likely than not, he’s not going to be out there in the last two minutes of a game, if it’s a one-goal game. That’s generally (Filip) Kuba and (Chris) Phillips and if (Anton) Volchenkov’s in.

    I’m a firm believer that the NHL is a league for winning games, and the AHL is a league for developing players, but obviously the Senators think that Karlsson’s going to learn more in the big league. As for the possibility that Karlsson dramatically improved over his AHL stint, there is one thing in particular that makes me skeptical. His superficial AHL numbers are good – it’s hard to argue with 11 assists in 12 games – but I thought it was interesting where he ranked by plus/minus on the Binghamton depth chart:

    • Geoff Kinrade: plus-10
    • Craig Schira: plus-7
    • Tomas Kudelka: plus-7
    • Drew Bannister: even
    • Erik Karlsson: even
    • Paul Baier: minus-1
    • Brian Lee: minus-2
    • Derek Smith: minus-5

    Of course, plus/minus is an imperfect statistic and it’s impossible to make any firm judgements from it, but Karlsson’s poor number despite his offensive success tells me one of two things:

    1. Karlsson was giving up as much as he was creating, OR
    2. Karlsson’s offence was a product of the power play and wasn’t being created at even-strength

    I’d guess it was a combination of the two, and neither suggests he’s suddenly going to be more capable of playing a regular NHL shift than he was a month ago. I can’t help but wonder if the Senators really made the right call here.