“Is this real?”
That’s the first of many texts blowing up Joe Pavelski’s phone the second he exits the rink on Day 1 of the San Jose Sharks’ training camp in mid-September. Apparently something happened while he was on the ice. Something big. “I don’t really know,” Pavelski replies to his buddy from home.
Pavelski, the Sharks’ captain, is typically the first player on San Jose to catch wind of any major news, but even he can’t say for sure if his team just acquired Erik friggin’ Karlsson.
After all, it’s been an off-season full of #fakenews when it comes to Karlsson trade talk, with his ticket practically booked for Dallas and Tampa Bay at different junctures. Still, Pavelski’s been sensing a monster move all summer. He knows the Sharks and their GM, Doug Wilson, made the shortlist for in-person pitches to top free-agent prize John Tavares. Pavelski was extremely disappointed when his team lost out to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that never shook his faith that Wilson would execute something significant.
Pavelski hops online and clicks the first link he finds. He makes a couple calls to confirm what his eyes tell him: Erik Karlsson, two-time Norris Trophy winner and the best offensive defenseman this millennium, is a Shark. San Jose loses multiple draft picks, handy center Chris Tierney and top prospect Josh Norris, among other pieces, in the blockbuster deal with the Ottawa Senators, but it’s worth it. With Karlsson and Brent Burns, San Jose now possesses the only two blueliners in the past 22 seasons to crack the top 10 in scoring.
Sharks players are understandably giddy at the news, especially when it appears this franchise has committed every last fume in the tank to chase a Stanley Cup. The Sharks have reached the playoffs 13 times in the past 14 seasons, amassing one Cup final berth, four Western Conference final trips, five division titles and eight 100-point seasons in that stretch. They’ve had just one top-10 slot in the past 11 NHL drafts, never picking higher than sixth overall since the turn of the century, and have therefore regularly placed near the bottom of The Hockey News’ farm-system rankings in Future Watch, the victims of their own consistent success. They epitomize the win-now concept. They’re the fifth-oldest team in the NHL, with franchise legend Joe Thornton entering his age-39 season on two surgically repaired knees, Pavelski now 34, Burns 33 and shutdown blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic 31. So it makes too much sense for Wilson to go full Captain Ahab and hunt the biggest whale in sight. If not Tavares, why not Karlsson?
Karlsson, 28, was actually the Sharks’ target before Tavares, even superseding Evander Kane. Wilson admits he first started asking about Karlsson at the 2018 trade deadline. He felt he owed it to his veteran group to give them every chance at a Stanley Cup. “I do not believe in complete rebuilds, because how do I look at my head coach or my players who have committed long-term contracts to us, and all of a sudden they don’t have a chance to win?” Wilson said. “Our belief is in doing the things necessary to give us the best chance to win every year. That’s what we do.”
There’s no denying Wilson has accomplished his goal and iced the best possible Sharks team for 2018-19. Karlsson’s impact can’t be overstated. First, the obvious: he’s magical as an offensive player. The only defensemen in the modern era to finish top-10 in scoring twice are Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin and Karlsson.
How good is he? Consider what he accomplished last season. He “only” had 62 points in 71 games, operating lower than his typical standard. But he did so on an Ottawa team that finished 25th in goals and posted its worst points percentage in 22 years, marking its darkest days since its historically bad first few seasons after arriving as an expansion team in 1992-93. Among the 133 defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes 5-on-5 last season, Karlsson ranked first in points per 60 minutes. And that’s despite the fact that, among that same sample group, Karlsson ranked second-last in quality of teammates according to their shot-attempt data. His most common defense partner was a 36-year-old Johnny Oduya. Karlsson had pretty much the least help of any defenseman in the league yet was still the most productive blueliner on a per-game and per-minute basis.
He also did all that after having such serious off-season surgery on his left ankle that, as he put it, “doctors removed half my ankle bone.” And, most tragically, he accomplished everything despite he and wife Melinda enduring the stillborn death of their first child, Axel. In the wake of that devastating loss came the disturbing allegations of a yearlong online harassment campaign by Monika Caryk, fiancee of then-Senators teammate Mike Hoffman, that included everything from wishing a career-ending injury for Karlsson to wishing death upon Axel to, after his death, blaming it on Melinda’s alleged use of pain medication. Caryk has denied the allegations, and as of press time, the case was still ongoing. We can say with certainty, however, that Karlsson had a mountain of trauma to deal with during the 2017-18 season. That he was still so good on the ice tells us just how special he is as a player.
Between Burns, Karlsson and Vlasic, the Sharks will play roughly 50 minutes of every game with one or two of them on the ice, allowing San Jose to replicate the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators’ almost unfair deployment of four star-caliber, 25-minute D-men in P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer now has quite the sandbox of toys to play with, especially when it comes to setting up his power play. Pre-season pairings suggested a Karlsson-Vlasic duo, but it may take time to work out the ideal combinations for even-strength play. Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed shots, and Vlasic has formed a strong pairing with Justin Braun, matching up against the opposition’s best forwards. But DeBoer, who played a major role in recruiting Karlsson, isn’t worried. Figuring out this lineup is a good problem to have. “We can use him in every situation,” DeBoer told reporters at a Sept. 19 press conference introducing Karlsson in San Jose. “There are very few players in the world that I would term you can use in the last minute of games when you’re up or you’re down, to shut down the other team’s best players, to create offense when you’re behind, and he’s one of those guys. He has those types of tools. We’re going to use him in a lot of different ways.”
Most of the longtime Sharks haven’t faced Karlsson too often, playing in the opposite conference, but they’ve been blown away by what he’s shown in limited competition and especially in their first few practices with him. “There are very few players in the league that can play a game at the pace they want to play it,” said center Logan Couture. “And when he’s on the ice, he dictates the way the game is played, whether he wants to slow it down or speed it up. He’s got a very good stick defensively, and he knows when to jump into the rush and on the attack, and he’s got that mindset where he’s always looking for that hole. He’s one of the top players at his position in the world.”
There are very few players in the league that can play a game at the pace they want to play it
– Logan Couture
No one will confuse Karlsson with Larry Robinson or Zdeno Chara. Karlsson, average-sized at six-foot and 191 pounds, doesn’t make life physical hell for his opponents. His cowboy puck-rushing mentality allows some chances to leak the other way, too. He ranked middle-of-the pack in high-danger shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes last season, so his goaltender always has to stay awake in case a breakaway strikes. But the modern definition of “playing defense” has changed. When Karlsson’s on the ice, more pucks go toward the other team’s net than his, period. Over the past five seasons, he’s second among defensemen only to Drew Doughty in team shot attempts generated when he’s on the ice, but Karlsson also ranks in the top 20 in Corsi plus-minus over that span. He’s more asset than liability on defense. He’s a committed shot-blocker and, like an all-pro NFL cornerback, can correct mistakes with his wheels, which stood out to Pavelski in the past when he faced Karlsson. “If you get caught on the wrong side or when he wanted to go, he could jump up in that play and was just gone,” Pavelski said. “There was no catching him. There were a few times where you thought you were gone and he was beat, and after a couple hard strides he was right up with you. His quickness to recover allows him to play that aggressive offensive style as well.”
Might Vlasic, as defensively conscientious as any blueliner in the sport, be the perfect partner for Karlsson? Whatever formation DeBoer chooses, the Sharks look formidable in the Pacific – the NHL’s least predictable division. Last year’s division champs, the Vegas Golden Knights, will attempt to duplicate the most unlikely expansion-squad performance in major pro sports history. The Edmonton Oilers can’t seem to build a contending team around superstar Connor McDavid. The rebuilding Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks will keep expectations realistic. The Calgary Flames look like a strong challenger after making so many of their own off-season upgrades but are hardly a sure thing coming off a playoff miss. And the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, always jostling with San Jose for divisional supremacy, didn’t improve their rosters significantly after getting swept in their Round 1 matchups last spring. Even signing Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t make L.A. faster. The door therefore isn’t just ajar for San Jose. Karlsson kicks it wide open.
But will he do so as a Shark solely for this season? He’s a UFA in 2019, and a contract extension wasn’t negotiated as part of the trade. As reported by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, should Karlsson want to sign a max-term, eight-year pact with San Jose, he cannot do so until after the Feb. 25 trade deadline. He can sign for seven years or less any time but likely wants to give such a major decision some thought. Yet here’s where the trade looks particularly clever for Wilson: with no extension included, he essentially acquired Karlsson at a one-year “rental” price, not surrendering talented 2018 first-round defenseman Ryan Merkley or a skilled young roster contributor such as Tomas Hertl or Timo Meier.
Now, Wilson and the Sharks get to bet on themselves winning over Karlsson as a hockey market. Recent history suggests the Sharks are virtually undefeated in that arena. The unofficial saying goes that you never leave San Jose once you go there, or you at least stay for a long time. San Jose’s core players repeatedly sign long-term extensions to remain, from Burns to Vlasic to Couture. Gifted but volatile Kane, long known for having trouble fitting in with his teams, signed a seven-year extension less than three weeks after the Sharks were bounced from the playoffs. He’d been a Shark less than three months and saw enough to know he wanted to spend his prime with them.
Wilson can relate. He joined the inaugural 1991-92 Sharks as their captain and has remained with the franchise almost every year since, working in the front office in some capacity since 1997-98. Wilson and DeBoer met with Karlsson before the trade went down and explained their vision for the team, but the selling of San Jose as a long-term landing spot will be up to the players. “You can’t bulls— a hockey player,” Wilson said. “They can talk to other players, they can talk to wives, and my No. 1 responsibility as a general manager is to make this a place where players want to play. But ultimately it comes down to the players.”
The combination of balmy weather, devoted fans and a dressing room filled with accomplished, well-liked leaders makes San Jose a difficult environment to leave. As Couture puts it, “They say San Jose doesn’t have hockey fans, it has Sharks fans.” They create a great atmosphere at the SAP Center, a.k.a. ‘The Shark Tank.’ At the same time, in a Bay Area market that also includes the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, MLB’s San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and, for a little while longer, Oakland Raiders, NHL players still achieve anonymity. Couture likes that he can sneak out for groceries without getting mobbed. That culture could be a welcome change for Karlsson after a nightmarish year getting swarmed with Canadian-market media scrums. “You hope that plays a part,” Pavelski said. “Every person has different things they’re looking for or different personalities. But first and foremost, if the family’s happy and the hockey’s good, that takes care of a lot of things.”
Pavelski stresses the main reason guys keep coming back is the hockey. The Sharks’ ownership and Wilson trot out winning lineups season after season. Constantly having a chance at a Cup is addictive. “It’s definitely going to be a change,” said Karlsson at the presser. “I like to see challenges, and it will be a fun challenge not only for me but this whole team. They’ve been a successful team for a number of years. They were extremely good last year, and I’m extremely excited to be part of a good organization and good hockey club right from the start.”
His quickness to recover allows him to play that aggressive offensive style
– Joe Pavelski
Even if Karlsson ends up deciding to leave as a UFA, the price to get him was easily worthwhile for Wilson. He did surrender at least one first-round pick, a promising two-way center in Norris and possibly a lot more depending on whether Karlsson re-signs with the Sharks (see sidebar). According to Wilson, however, one of the crucial roles of a team’s developmental system isn’t just to yield core-group NHL players. It’s also to brew up a critical mass of tradeable depth assets to be used in deals like the one he pulled with Ottawa.
With a seagull’s-eye view from the outside, it would appear the Sharks are sacrificing the future for a win-now roster. But those within the organization feel they have a proper blend of talented veterans and impactful young players. Ask any member of the team and he scoffs at the idea of a “Stanley Cup window.” Wilson straight-up laughs at it. Couture points out that the “window” has lasted for a decade-and-a-half. “Yeah, there’s a few of us getting a little older, but we’ve had this window open a long time,” Pavelski said. “We’ve had good teams. The year we went to the final, guys were saying maybe our window wasn’t there anymore. We’d just missed the playoffs the year before.”
That Sharks team pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the 2016 final. It’s easy today to look back and recognize the pieces that made San Jose great then. Burns drove the play like no blueliner in the game other than Karlsson. Thornton had a resurgent season, joining the NHL’s top five in scoring and MVP voting. Couture led the post-season in points. Martin Jones was lights-out in net. But Pavelski is right: mainstream media wrote that team off as past its prime. In the pages of The Hockey News’ Season Preview that year, we called Thornton “a declining asset” and picked San Jose to finish fourth in its division, on the playoff bubble. Even once the Sharks made the playoffs, in Round 1 they drew the team they supposedly couldn’t beat, the team that had rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to beat them in 2014: the L.A. Kings. Few expected the Sharks to slay their Minotaur. But they did, and they almost earned themselves a championship. There’s a revisionist history about that season now, isn’t there? Going into it, the perception was they’d missed their shot. Two years later, they’re still knocking on the door. So whenever talk of chasing a tiny Cup window surfaces again, the Sharks can’t help but smirk.
In their minds, even if the Sharks lose Karlsson, they’re in fine shape, because they have an underrated youth movement. Hertl, 24, has emerged as a valuable two-way forward who can play center or wing and slot in on any of the top three lines. Meier, a first-rounder in 2015, flashed his vast scoring potential with a 21-goal breakout last year and he’s still just 22. But if there’s one thing the Sharks’ development system has been known for in recent seasons, it’s not the Grade A draft picks like Hertl and Meier: it’s the obscure names harvested from the farm and molded into legitimate NHL assets. That includes defenseman Joakim Ryan, who spent much of last season paired with Burns, and Kevin Labanc, a sixth-rounder who lit up the AHL before becoming a viable secondary NHL scorer. Players like those add depth behind the team’s star core, while other AHL seedlings, such as Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, bloom into trading chips. Wilson believes one key organizational change has accelerated the team’s pipeline: moving its AHL affiliate from Worcester, Mass., to San Jose, where the Barracuda share an arena with the Sharks. The opportunities to closely evaluate your pro prospects skyrocket when they’re available to observe across a hallway. “A lot of those players are coming into their own, and what makes an organization successful is when you can put those younger guys into the group with the older guys, and they find their game as the older guys are still playing well,” Couture said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful the last decade.”
Couture has a point. And maybe that’s why this franchise gets underestimated so often. Or maybe, this time, the window really is starting to shrink. The Thornton era enters what might be its final season, and it hardly feels like a coincidence that Wilson has assumed his most aggressive form as GM in his 15-year run. Even if every member of the franchise believes this team can stay strong for years to come, its personnel moves, from the Kane trade to the pursuit of Tavares to the Karlsson deal, suggest it’s behaving like a wounded animal fighting with every last cell to survive.
We can debate all day whether the Sharks have entered their high-stakes final period of Cup contention. What we can’t debate: for at least this season, the Sharks have emerged as the Pacific’s apex predator.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.