Erik Karlsson is having one of the all-time greatest seasons for a defenseman. One that’s worthy of the Hart.
The Hockey News published its midseason NHL award picks and the choices weren’t too surprising. Patrick Kane is the heavy favourite for the Hart thanks to a huge lead in the NHL’s point-scoring race, Braden Holtby should have little trouble winning the Vezina, and Erik Karlsson is in line to take home consecutive Norris trophies. Nothing too unusual. But I don’t think enough credit is being given to how great Karlsson has played so far. After Sunday night’s game Karlsson has 45 points in 43 games, an 86 point pace. In this era, that’s elite level scoring for any player – only Jamie Benn topped the mark last season. For a defensemen? It’s practically absurd. Not one D-man has picked up more than 85 points in a season since Brian Leetch did it in the 1995-96 season. That was 20 years ago – in a higher scoring era to boot.
Not only that, Karlsson is eating a monstrous amount of minutes. Since the stat started being tracked, only 14 defensemen have averaged more ice-time per game than his 28:35 this season. Since December his usage has increased even further as he’s averaged just over 30:25 minutes per game, including a preposterous 36:34 minute effort on December 20 against Tampa Bay. Should he continue playing at this rate, Karlsson could eclipse Chris Pronger’s ATOI record of 30:14 back in 1999-00. Pronger won the Hart Trophy that year and is the only defensemen to win it since Bobby Orr won three straight. That ought to change this season. What Karlsson is doing this season is a truly special feat that deserves more hardware than the Norris alone. He’s the leading scorer in the East as a defensemen and is playing almost half of every game. Those facts alone should be enough to give him consideration, but there’s some additional eye-popping context to what Karlsson is doing this season that should push him over the top. For the fancy stats crowd, Karlsson is fifth in the league in CF% RelTM (a shot rate metric that compares how players do with or without their teammates, weighted by time on ice) improving his team’s Corsi by 8.5 percent. And for those that question the defensive side of Karlsson’s game, Ottawa gives up about 9.7 less shot attempts per 60 minutes with Karlsson on the ice versus on the bench. Puck possession is vital to team success and Karlsson is a huge part of what’s keeping the team afloat in the East. With Karlsson though, it always comes back to scoring because he’s just so good at it. If he can keep up his 86 point pace, it would be the 30th highest scoring season for a defensemen in the modern era. But an 86 point season in 2015-16 is obviously more impressive than one in 1995-96 because of declining scoring levels, so rather than look at raw totals, let’s level the playing field. Here’s the method: find the average points-per-game and scoring distribution in a given season, look at how far away a player is from average that season, and then apply it to this current season. For example, Bobby Orr’s best season was in 1970-71 where he scored 139 points in 78 games, or more than four standard deviations above the mean. This season, that’s equal to a 120 point pace. Here’s the top 20 era-adjusted scoring seasons in 2015-16 terms for a defensemen. The adjustment brings Erik Karlsson’s current pace up from 30th all the way to 11th. What Karlsson is doing this season has potential to be a top-10 scoring season for a D-man since 1967 and that deserves a lot more credit than he’s currently getting.
Now consider who the guys above Karlsson on that list played with. Not to take anything away from Orr, Paul Coffey or Denis Potvin, but all three of them played on a great team with a guy who won the Art Ross that season (or came second in the two cases where Orr himself won it). Ottawa is not that and the next highest scoring player after Karlsson is a tie between Mike Hoffman and Bobby Ryan at 36 points – with neither cracking the league’s top 20. Karlsson gets about 1.22 points for every point the next highest Senator gets meaning he’s the catalyst of the Sens offence rather than the byproduct of an elite forward (in case anyone wanted to start the Mike Green comparisons). From the previous list of 20, that’s second only to Ray Bourque in 1986-87, a year where he came second in Hart voting to Wayne Gretzky and right above Orr in 1969-70, the year he won his first Hart. It’s extremely rare for a defenseman to put up numbers like Karlsson has without an elite forward contributing. Then there’s the total contribution Karlsson makes to his team’s offence. He may not have as many points as the guys above him – even when you adjust for era – but those guys were on very strong teams that scored lots of goals. Ottawa is borderline top 10 in that regard, scoring 2.70 goals per game and 116 total. Karlsson has a point on 45 of those goals, or 38.8 percent of them. Here’s where he ranks among that top 20.
Third. Among the top 20 best scoring seasons for a defenseman since 1967, Erik Karlsson has the third highest percentage of points on total team goals scored. That’s insanity. When the only two seasons above his are Bobby Orr, and the next three after are also Bobby Orr, that’s probably as good a case as any for this being one of the all-time greatest seasons for a D-man. One that’s worthy of the Hart.