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Don't Want to be Part of a Rebuild, Erik Karlsson? Play Better

After helping the Sharks to the Western Conference final and signing an eight-year deal worth $92 million, Karlsson has declined dramatically. And that's a big part of the problem in San Jose.
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Full disclosure: I did not take part in the zoom media conference Saturday in which Erik Karlsson expressed his lack of appetite to endure a rebuild with the San Jose Sharks. If I had, I would have asked him if he feels he bears any of the responsibility for the state in which the Sharks are currently and, if so, what he proposes to do about it.

If Karlsson has no inclination to play through a rebuild, at least he and Sharks GM Doug Wilson are on the same page. Although Wilson recently referred to the Sharks being in the “reset” mode numerous times last week, he also maintained they have a core of very good veteran players, but that they’ve focused on replenishing their organization through the draft and giving their young players more opportunities to play. “We don’t put a timeline on it,” Wilson said last week. “But we think there’s no reason why we can’t be in a very good position by next season.”

And when Karlsson was asked the next day for his reaction to Wilson’s “reset” characterization of the Sharks, he was blunt in his view of the situation. “Obviously, I did not sign here to go through a rebuild or go through what I did for 10 years in Ottawa," Karlsson said. “But it is what it is. I think that we need to find a way to build with a core group that we have here and figure out a way how to be competitive here in the upcoming years.”

What Karlsson failed to mention is that part of the reason the Sharks have cratered the way they have since getting to the Western Conference final in 2019 is because of his play. It was after that season the Sharks inked Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth $92 million and if Karlsson didn’t sign up for a rebuild, you can bet your last dollar the Sharks did not sign up for getting the player they’ve received so far in return. Injuries have played a huge part in all of this, but the inescapable reality is that if Karlsson doesn’t pick up his game in a significant way in the next couple of seasons, that contract is going to go down as an all-time blunder.

As Wilson rightly pointed out, Karlsson is one day older than Roman Josi, who won his first Norris Trophy last season. And he’s about 6-1/2 months older than Victor Hedman, who was the most valuable player in the playoffs and is as close to a shoo-in for the Norris this season as you’re going to see. There is still time for Karlsson to redeem himself, but he has to somehow stop this downward trajectory from continuing and it would really help if he could get off to better starts to the season. For his part, Wilson likes what he has seen from Karlsson of late.

“I think he’s excited to be back healthy and he’s excited to be with his family,” Wilson said of Karlsson. “The way he’s playing now is how we expect him to play for a long time. I think he is set to be a dominant player again.”

Wilson has to count on that happening because his hands are tied with the Karlsson deal. Of course, he has a full no-move clause, which means he must be protected in the expansion draft and his $11.5 million cap hit – which takes up 14.5 percent of the Sharks’ available cap space – makes it essentially impossible to either trade him or buy him out. Like it or not, Karlsson and the Sharks are stuck with one another, so it’s in Karlsson’s best interests to ensure that a complete rebuild isn’t necessary. And a couple of things are a little disappointing. The first was how he characterized his nine seasons in Ottawa. He either forgot about that 2017 playoff run when the Senators came within an overtime goal of going to the Stanley Cup final or it was a shot at the organization. The second was how little responsibility he takes for the Sharks’ precipitous drop the past two seasons.

“You have to put the trust in the people around you that deal in these types of things,” Karlsson said, “and here it starts with Doug Wilson.”

That might be the case, but it also starts with Erik Karlsson consistently playing like an $11.5 million player. If he gets around to doing that, a lot of this organization’s ills are going to take care of themselves.

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