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Karlsson braces for emotional first trip to face Senators with Sharks

Defenseman, traded to San Jose in September, won Norris Trophy twice in nine seasons in Ottawa

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Erik Karlsson isn't sure if there will be cheers, tears or a combination of both when he plays his former team for the first time on Saturday.

How will the fans react to him? How will he react to them?

"It's going to be fun, different, weird, I'm sure," the San Jose Sharks defenseman said Monday about returning to play the Ottawa Senators. "We'll see what the emotions will be.

"I'm not going to lie. I pretty much knew right after the Senators traded me when the date would be for our first game back in Ottawa. People knew when the game would be.

"It's going to be fun to get up there. We still have obviously two games before that (but) I think going to Ottawa will be special and different."

For both player and the city.

Video: VAN@SJS: E. Karlsson buries PPG through traffic

Karlsson refers to Ottawa as his "forever home." His wife Melinda is from there. It was the only NHL team he'd ever known since he was picked No. 15 by the Senators in the 2008 NHL Draft.

Then came the trade Sept 13. The Senators sent Karlsson and forward prospect Francis Perron to the Sharks for forwards Chris Tierney and Rudolfs Balcers, defenseman Dylan DeMelo, forward prospect Joshua Norris, a conditional first-round pick in the 2019 or 2020 NHL Draft, and a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Karlsson is in the last year of his contract. If San Jose signs the 28-year-old, Ottawa receives a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft that would become a first-round pick if the Sharks reach the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. If Karlsson winds up on an Eastern Conference roster this season, Ottawa would receive another first-round pick before 2022.

He openly wept at his farewell press conference in Ottawa, insisting he never wanted to leave. He'd played his entire nine-season NHL career with the Senators. He was their captain. He won the Norris Trophy twice and scored 126 goals in 627 games with the Senators. He'd helped them to double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.

These will be the memories that will be tugging at his heartstrings when he steps back onto the ice at Canadian Tire Center when the Sharks play the Senators on Saturday.

"Fortunately, I kind of know what to expect," Karlsson said. "When Daniel Alfredsson came back to Ottawa for the first time with the Detroit Red Wings, I pretty much spent the entire day leading up to the game with him. I saw the emotions he went through, I saw how stable and in control he tried to be.

"And now I'm going to go through the same thing."

Alfredsson, a mentor to Karlsson with the Senators from 2008-13, left Ottawa as a free agent to sign with the Red Wings in the offseason of 2013. He scored a goal and had one assist in his triumphant return to Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2013. But the 4-2 Detroit win was a mere sidebar to the love shown to Alfredsson by the crowd of 20,011, which chanted "Alfie, Alfie!" during a pregame video ceremony honoring his 17 seasons with the Senators.

Video: STL@SJS: Karlsson scores first goal with the Sharks

Sharks forward Logan Couture, who played junior with Ottawa of the Ontario Hockey League, said he expects the city to embrace Karlsson's return in similar fashion.

"I think they'll cheer him. And I think they should cheer for him," Couture said. "I'm sure the split wasn't what both sides wanted but that's the way it works in pro sports sometimes. He gave them everything he had for nine, 10 years, took them to the conference finals … they should celebrate him."

San Jose general manager Doug Wilson, an Ottawa native, agrees.

"Whatever the dynamics were that led to the trade, given how he played there and what he did for the community, I think the city will respect everything he did there," Wilson said. "He's a special guy."

Karlsson has had a slow start in San Jose, getting seven assists and no goals in his first 18 games.

Wilson said that's understandable, given the change of teams, time zones and lifestyles. But he's been impressed by the improvement shown by the veteran defenseman, who has two goals and six assists in his past seven games.

"I find his situation very relatable on many fronts from my playing days when I left [the Chicago Blackhawks] after 14 seasons and landed in San Jose," Wilson said. "It was my wife's hometown. A lot went into that: The support system, creature of habits, having played in one place, all of that.

"We knew the integration time would take some time for him. He's a great player. It was very similar to P.K. Subban going to [the Nashville Predators]. It takes some time. He's a great addition for our team. We think our best hockey is ahead of us and we think Erik's best hockey is ahead of him."

Karlsson has business to take care of before he and the Sharks head to Ottawa. After a 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, then play at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN, TVAS, NBCSCA).

"I'm not the type of guy who dwells in the past or looks in the past," he said. "I'm not the type of guy who looks at what ifs. I'm just looking forward to it.

"I feel great. My body feels great. The game is starting to take form. My body might not be the same from when I was 21, but I'm a better player than when I was 21."

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