Pete DeBoer heard the skeptics a year ago when the Sharks added world-class defenseman Erik Karlsson to a lineup that already included Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. “When you have two elite guys like that,” the veteran coach said, “I think everyone’s concern was, ‘Well, is there going to be enough ice for both guys?’ That was never an issue. ‘Is there enough power-play time for both guys?’ That was never an issue. The things you read or people talked about that were going to be a potential issue? None of that was an issue.”
Still, not everything went exactly according to plan.
The Sharks were patient as Karlsson needed two months to adjust to new surroundings after spending his entire career with the Ottawa Senators. Then, after a stellar 21-game stretch, he injured his groin and missed 27 of the final 33 games. Back in time for the playoffs, his 16 points in 19 games helped San Jose reach the conference final.
Karlsson ended the suspense about his future two weeks before the beginning of free agency, signing an eight-year, $92-million extension with San Jose. Now, after surgery plus a summer of rehab and house-hunting, Karlsson and the Sharks are optimistically hoping to capitalize even more on having two premier defensemen on the same blueline.
For one thing, adjustment won’t be an issue. “It’s going to be great going there this year and having everything sorted out and just being able to focus on the hockey,” Karlsson said in early August.
Karlsson acknowledged that getting acclimated was harder than he anticipated and that his Dec. 1 return to Ottawa – where he played for nine seasons, served as captain and twice won the Norris – was tougher than he let on. “Looking back, I think that was something I had to go through because there was so much tension leading up to it, so much talk about it,” he said. “Once that was over, I think it kind of allowed my subconscious to move forward a little more.”
That game – a woeful 6-2 loss that prompted GM Doug Wilson to meet with the players – proved pivotal for Karlsson and the team. The Sharks immediately went on a 16-4-1 run with Karlsson contributing a goal and a whopping 28 points. “A lot of those games during that period, you’d walk off the bench as a coach and think he controlled the game when he was on the ice,” DeBoer said. “There are only a few guys in the world that can do that.”
Karlsson wasn’t the only Sharks player making adjustments last season. His arrival also meant changes for Burns and shutdown specialist Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who struggled for months before regaining his form just prior to the playoffs. “Typically,” DeBoer said, “Vlasic would play against everyone’s top lines, and ‘Burnzie’ would be our offensive guy. Then we brought in Karlsson, and Vlasic was with Karlsson, so you had a typically assigned shutdown guy playing with an offensive guy.”
With Karlsson in the lineup, Burns was asked to play harder defensive minutes. “And,” DeBoer said, “I thought he really rose to the occasion.”
As far as Karlsson’s health, he and DeBoer spoke confidently, saying that surgery appears to have repaired the groin problem that sidelined the defenseman much of last season. “It feels really good, it feels like I’m normal,” said Karlsson, who skipped his usual summer trip back home to Sweden because of the procedure and therapy that followed.
In August, DeBoer said he had not identified his defense pairings for training camp, but it’s easy to speculate. If Radim Simek has recovered from knee surgery, he’ll likely skate alongside Burns, while Karlsson should see action with Vlasic and Brenden Dillon.
DeBoer doesn’t set ice-time targets for Karlsson or Burns. Last season, Burns averaged 25:06, right in his customary range, and Karlsson played 24:29, more than two minutes less than his previous two years in Ottawa but easily explained by his injuries and slow start. “The nice thing about both those guys,” DeBoer said, “is I know that on any given night we can amp up (their minutes) without any issue. I also know there’s a great benefit to not having them play 30 a night, and that usually pays off in the playoffs.”
Deploying both Karlsson and Burns on the power play was a luxury, the coach said, not a challenge. The Sharks ranked sixth-best in NHL with the man advantage last season, and part of the reason was the fact Karlsson and Burns could skate on separate units or together to create a totally different look. “It’s not like having Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the same team where only one can play,” DeBoer said.
Karlsson finished the season with a respectable 45 points in 53 games, but only three of those were goals. Neither he nor DeBoer seemed troubled by that, however. “His shot metrics, we looked at that,” DeBoer said, “and they were as good or better than the seasons in Ottawa when he was getting 20 goals. It doesn’t concern me.”
Karlsson indicated he didn’t feel pressure to score because so many other Sharks were finding the net. San Jose finished the season with a franchise-best 289 goals, tied with Calgary for second overall in the NHL behind Tampa Bay. “I had to do a lot of different things, and I took pride in that,” Karlsson said. “The team scored a lot of goals. I didn’t. To me, that shows I focused on the right things I needed to do to be successful, and a lot of other guys did the same.”
The Sharks point to that six-week stretch before Karlsson’s injury to illustrate what they believe they are capable of this year. But can they be that good without Joe Pavelski, a salary-cap casualty after Karlsson was re-signed? “We’ll see,” DeBoer said. “We have to be. That’s the reality of a salary cap. We’ve got to find a way to deal with it. We don’t have a choice.”