OTTAWA – By all accounts, even his own, Erik Karlsson has never played the game at a higher level than he has played it this season. Even in the years he won the Norris Trophy. He’s blocking shots and playing with authority in his own end of the ice, all the while making eye-popping outlet passes and controlling the pace of the game as well as he ever has. He’s stabbing pucks out of the air, chasing down 50-50 pucks and getting his team out of trouble at a prodigious rate. With an assist on the power play Thursday night against Chicago, Karlsson recorded his 50th assist of the season, marking the fourth time in his career he’s had 50 or more helpers.
So a lot of people in these parts find it rather ironic that Karlsson likely won’t win the Norris this season. The award for the best defenseman in the NHL has been all but giftwrapped and bequeathed to Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, who has been an offensive tsunami this season. And that’s where the irony comes in. Last season when Karlsson became the first defenseman since Paul Coffey to finish in the top five in scoring and the first since Bobby Orr to lead the league in assists, the knock against him was that he didn’t defend well enough. And now that he’s doing that, there’s a good chance that he’s going to lose the Norris to a guy who’s doing what Karlsson did when he won – put up boffo numbers.
“I’m not taking anything away from Burns because he’s having a heck of a year,” said Senators center Kyle Turris. “But it’s frustrating how ass-backward that is.”
Stan Mikita used to tell a story about his transformation as a hockey player and the “aha moment” that came with it. During the 1964-65 season, one in which he recorded more than 200 regular-season and playoff penalty minutes, Mikita was asked by his young daughter why he would so often have to go off and sit by himself while his friends Bobby Hull and Kenny Wharram were out playing on the ice. It was at that precise moment that Mikita decided he would transform himself as a player. And, boy, did he do a 180. Mikita reduced his penalty minutes to just 58 the next season and two in six playoff games, then went on to win the Lady Byng Trophy in 1967 and ’68.
There was no such epiphany for Karlsson, who would probably be neck-and-neck with Connor McDavid if the Hart Trophy actually went to the player most valuable to his team. The Senators are on the cusp of first place in the Atlantic Division, but the reality is that this team is not an elite outfit. It’s winning because new coach Guy Boucher has implemented a patient style based on waiting for opportunities and grinding out one-goal games. It’s not always the most pleasant thing to watch, but the buy-in from Karlsson is probably the most pivotal reason why it has been so successful.
“His words to me this summer were, ‘Coach, I want to win,’ ” Boucher said. “ ‘Top-scoring defenseman, I don’t care about that. I want the team to win and I want to be captain of a winning team.’ Those things are easy to say, but he’s doing it. To me, he’s been unbelievable. It’s the price of the ticket right there, for sure.”
Perhaps the most mind-boggling stat is that Karlsson leads the league in blocked shots. Yes, blocked shots. Now that can sometimes be a misleading statistic. After all, if you’re blocking shots and hitting people, it means your spending a fair amount of time without the puck. And as Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey opined when he was in Ottawa recently, what exactly is the wisdom in having a $6.5 million player who leads your team in scoring stand in front of speeding pucks? But Karlsson does it very shrewdly. First, he blocks a good number of shots with his stick, so that’s not going to hurt anyone. And he also comes out to block a lot of shots, catching them in the shin pads before they have a chance to do much damage. And what is even more impressive is that Karlsson blocks with a purpose, using his ability to direct pucks into areas where he can turn them into transition plays. It’s almost as though he’s thinking a step ahead when he enters the shooting lane.
For his part, Karlsson downplays his commitment to defense as a product of being part of a collective effort and the benefit of experience.
“I don’t think my skill is better now than it used to be or my skating or anything like that,” Karlsson said. “It’s tough to compare season to season, but I’m happy with where I’m at right now in my career and where my game is. Hopefully, I can keep improving and the next season is always going to be the better one.”
If that is indeed the case, Karlsson should be approaching otherworldly status in the next couple of seasons. You get the sense that when Karlsson is on the ice, he dictates the pace the game will be played. Just about everything the Senators do when he’s on the ice centers around him, almost the way it does around an elite point guard such as Steph Curry.
“His words to me this summer were, ‘Coach, I want to win,’ “
“He’s a quarterback,” Turris said. “He sees the whole game develop and he runs it.”
There was a game recently where Karlsson actually caught David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins on a breakaway. In a recent game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Karlsson lunged out with his stick to knock down a clearing attempt, then regained the puck and spun around a defender to get into an open shooting lane.
So is it possible to not win the Norris Trophy and still take MVP honors? Likely not, since the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on both awards. But it is an interesting quandary. If you go by the strict definition of both awards – the Norris to the best all-round defenseman and the Hart to the player most valuable to his team – it’s difficult to make a case against Karlsson.
“Oh my god, absolutely – 100 percent,” Boucher said when asked whether Karlsson belongs in the conversation for both the Hart and the Norris. “With what he’s done this year, the way he’s done it, I can’t imagine better. I just can’t. Right now it’s absolutely sublime. It really is.”
As Coffey also pointed out, playing a sound defensive game is more a question of commitment and fearlessness than it is talent. As he said, Karlsson can block shots as well or better than anyone else. But ask a lot of players to do what he does in other areas of the game and it’s an impossibility for them. It all comes down to Karlsson coming to the conclusion that the Senators, as currently constituted, are not going to win games unless they play the game a certain way. Sometimes they employ a 0-2-3 forecheck, which is actually considered a forecheck only on a technicality. That means the Senators find themselves giving up a fair bit of ice, which requires some rather heavy lifting in the neutral and defensive zones. Boucher has insisted on a John Tortorella-like commitment to sacrificing in the defensive zone, which has led to the dramatic increase in blocked shots. But Karlsson also knows that blocking shots often chops off the head of the snake when it comes to offense.
“Blocked shots is a big part of our game whether you’re a skilled guy or a grinder,” Karlsson said. “It’s helped me defensively to get pucks out easier and not having to battle the big guys in front of the net.”
Erik Karlsson. Image by: Getty Images
If Karlsson did indeed have a “come to Jesus” moment in terms of his defensive play, it was indeed a very private one. You’d have thought he would discuss it with his defense partner Marc Methot. But Methot claims Karlsson has never breathed a word of it, either to him or to any of his other teammates. Turris has a theory that might be just as good as any.
“He’s the kind of guy that if somebody tells him something that he can’t do or he’s not good at, he’s going to try to embarrass the person and prove him wrong.”
Methot has his own theory, that Karlsson is so confident in his abilities that once he made the decision to buy in defensively, becoming a great defensive player came easily. That’s how the great ones roll. As a young player, Sidney Crosby had two major shortcomings – that he couldn’t win draws and his shot wasn’t hard enough. Nobody accuses him of that anymore. Steve Yzerman transformed himself from a Hall of Fame offensive talent to one of the greatest two-way players of his generation. The knock on a young John Tavares was that he didn’t skate well enough to be a truly elite offensive player at the NHL level. That’s hardly the case now.
“He’s been a game-changer for us,” Methot said. “He always has been, but I find even more so this season. What can you say? How much more can I elaborate on how incredible he’s playing?” And that includes his play without the puck, which often leads to him getting the puck. “Everything he’s doing from his puck retrievals to 1-on-1s out of the corners, he’s not getting beat anymore. He’s a guy who can transition the puck out of your zone on a dime. When I’m in my corner, there’s always another option and it’s Erik. He’s always coming underneath and with speed, so I can get it to Erik and he can get it out of the ‘D’ zone. I can’t think of too many defensemen in the league who can do that.”
So does Karlsson’s defensive improvement pass the smell test this season? Well, Karlsson answers a lot of questions by saying “yes and no” and that’s kind of the case with his analytics. In terms of shot attempts, Karlsson went from being six shot attempts better than the rest of his team to being one worse this season. Last season, Ottawa’s goalies had just a .911 save percentage when he was on the ice and that has improved to .926 this season. When he was off the ice last year, Ottawa’s goalies had a .946 save percentage, compared to just .927 this season. In terms of goals, he went from being one worse than his team on defense to breaking even this season. (As far as giveaways are concerned, Karlsson is right up there as he is every season, largely because he handles the puck so much. He’s a distant second to none other than Burns in that category.)
“Anyone who knows the game and has been watching Ottawa Senators games would tell you he’s easily the best defenseman in the NHL.”
The numbers could very well suggest that Karlsson’s defensive improvement this season has coincided with better play by Ottawa’s goalies and that is definitely the case this season. But perhaps his goalies have such a good save percentage when he’s on the ice because Karlsson is doing a better job of limiting prime offensive opportunities. So perhaps he’s sacrificing quantity for quality this season and getting basically the same results. Ottawa’s change in style, the improvement of their goaltending and luck going his way have indeed contributed. But there’s no way the Senators would be able to play the style they’re playing without Karlsson buying in.
“Every effort for him, his approach to the team and the season, has been about leadership and winning with the collective,” Boucher said. “That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing right now. You’re just learning as you go along. I think Erik had seen enough years of the things he wanted to be. And he was hoping this year would be different for the team and to try to build something solid. For me, it was all about building it around his strengths.”
Having veterans such as Dion Phaneuf and Chris Kelly, and now Alex Burrows, around has helped alleviate some of the leadership responsibilities. And the defensive style the Senators play has indeed helped Karlsson and reduced the workload in his own end. But it’s paying off for both him and the Senators, a team that many picked to miss the playoffs this season and one that has a shot at winning its division.
“Our system is different than before and it requires a lot of hard work in the defensive zone to create offense,” Karlsson said. “That’s the way we’ve been winning games 1-0 and 2-1 and we’ve been sticking to that for the most part this year. The only time we stray from that is when it’s a 50-50 game. We know we can’t be successful that way.”
So when the winner of the Norris Trophy is announced in Las Vegas June 22, there’s a pretty good chance that Brent Burns will be the winner. And perhaps that’s karma. After all, Karlsson knows what it’s like to win the award based on outstanding offensive numbers. Then again, going into Saturday night’s games, Burns was only seven points ahead of Karlsson, but Karlsson has been slightly more productive of late. He has 5-14-19 totals in his past 17 games, while Burns has five goals and 15 points. Burns has 11 games remaining and Karlsson 12, which leaves a fair amount of time to close the gap with a hot streak.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
“I haven’t seen too much of what (Burns) is doing so it’s difficult for me to say, but what I’m seeing of Erik now, he’s that much better than he was several years ago when he won the Norris,” Methot said. “I’m seeing the way this kid is playing and I’m saying, ‘Geez, this is unbelievable.’ I think anyone who knows the game and has been watching Ottawa Senators games would tell you he’s easily the best defenseman in the NHL.”
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