‘The Pass’ represented Erik Karlsson at the peak of his powers. Remember it? April 17, 2017. An airborne touchdown strike to spring Mike Hoffman for a breakaway goal against the Boston Bruins during Round 1 the playoffs. The type of play only Karlsson could execute. He was 26, enjoying another Norris Trophy-caliber season and in the process of leading Ottawa to within one double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup final.
The Senators as we knew them got dismantled after that – including Karlsson, literally. That off-season, he underwent ankle surgery requiring the removal of, in his words at the time, “half my ankle bone.” He endured a season that was subpar on the ice by his incredibly high standard and a personal hell off it, then got traded to the San Jose Sharks and managed three goals during a season in which he missed 29 games. The past two years aren’t quite the trajectory you’d choose for yourself leading up to your monster UFA contract year.
But this is no ordinary UFA. This is Karlsson, the two-time Norris Trophy winner who arguably got robbed of two more, the greatest offensive defenseman of the past two decades. He’s a right-handed shot in a league that counted 129 right-handers versus 196 left-handers on its bluelines in 2018-19. He turns 29 on May 31, with prime-year production left in him, in a UFA year with arguably no other top-pair defensemen, let alone Norris Trophy threats, on the market. He will thus unquestionably command a max-term deal with an $11-million AAV, maybe more.
The question is whether he’ll accomplish enough to justify the gargantuan paycheque. Is the best version of Karlsson really gone? Did the surgery diminish him? Or does that popular narrative paint a false picture?
We all know Karlsson was elite as a Senator. Look at, for instance, his last three seasons with Ottawa pre-ankle surgery, 2014-15 through 2016-17, in which he finished first, second and second in Norris voting. During that stretch, he led all defensemen in assists, points, power-play points and even ranked in the top 10 in blocked shots. Among the 231 defensemen who logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 during that period, he generated the fourth-most individual shot attempts per 60 minutes, the fourth-most scoring chances per 60 and attempted the eighth-most rushes per 60 minutes. He accomplished that on Senators teams that, from 2014-15 to 2016-17, ranked 22nd in total Corsi. He elevated his allies like few other players in the league, ranking fourth in Corsi relative to teammates.
That establishes the baseline for Karlsson at his most dominant. Now let’s look at what he’s done in the two seasons post-surgery to see if the advanced data support the visual cues that he’s “not the same player.”
During his 71-game final season as a Senator, among 133 defensemen with 1,000-plus minutes 5-on-5: 11th in individual shot attempts per 60, 26th in scoring chances per 60, 128th in rush attempts per 60 and sixth in Corsi relative to teammates. He was still highly productive playing on a terrible team, though he rushed the puck far less often than before.
During his injury-shortened 2018-19 campaign with San Jose, he didn’t reach 1,000 minutes 5-on-5, but if we drop the sample to 800: second in individual shot attempts per 60, 16th in scoring chances per 60 and 34th in rush attempts per 60. It’s a great sign for his mobility that he attempted far more rushes this season than last. He obviously keeps much better company on the Sharks, but Karlsson ranked second among NHL blueliners in Corsi relative to his teammates.
Karlsson’s underlying stats post-ankle surgery, particularly this year, suggest he’s still an elite D-man, even if the natural aging process will prevent him from perfectly recreating the highs of 2014-15 to 2016-17. He scored three goals this season but converted on just 1.8 percent of pucks that reached the net. That’s a fluky-low shooting percentage that should regress to the mean next year.
Speaking of positive regression: he showed plenty of that in the post-season, especially after the first round, seemingly shaking off the rust from the injuries that shelved him for most of the season’s second half while logging his customary 25-plus minutes per game.
So will Karlsson earn every penny of a seven-year, $77-million deal? That’s a loaded question because UFA signings, by design, tend to pay players for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do. But the underlying metrics suggest that, even on half a left ankle, Karlsson will maintain a Norris-worthy standard for at least the first half of his contract. Given his skating ability and smarts, he’ll still have plenty to offer on the back half, too, even if by then he regresses into more of a power-play quarterback role.
So ignore any recent Karlsson game film that suggests he’s not the man he was. The numbers tell us otherwise.