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Karlsson’s coming alive in San Jose and it's making the Sharks that much scarier

By his own standards, Erik Karlsson had a slow start to his first season as a San Jose Shark, but he's been the league's most explosive defenseman in the NHL since the start of the second quarter of the campaign.

In a sense, Erik Karlsson only had himself to blame for the level of concern surrounding his play through the first quarter of the campaign. After all, he had set the gold standard for blueline production. Across the seven seasons prior to the 2018-19 campaign, he outscored all other NHL defensemen by a considerable 60-plus point margin. He boasted a .91 points per game rate. And that level of production meant that despite scoring 10 points through his first 20 games with the Sharks following his blockbuster off-season move to San Jose — a total that put him into a tie for 22nd among all NHL defensemen through mid-November — there was some worry that the all-world rearguard wasn’t quite the fit he was expected to be in the Bay Area.

How laughable that all seems now.

Monday night in San Jose, Karlsson dotted the scoresheet for the Sharks, picking up the secondary helper on Joonas Donskoi’s game-opening goal, the primary assist on Tomas Hertl’s game-winner and the lone assist on Joe Thornton’s empty-netter to seal a 3-1 victory over the rival Los Angeles Kings. He skated a team-high 27:34, played a team-high 27 shifts and finished second on the night with five shots on goal. None of it came as even the slightest surprise, though, because Karlsson has been doing this for weeks now.

Case in point, Monday’s three-point performance marked the 13th straight appearance in which Karlsson has found the scoresheet. (Not 13 consecutive games, mind you, as Karlsson spent two games on the sidelines as the result of a suspension for an illegal check to the head of the Kings’ Austin Wagner.) In doing so, Karlsson became the 15th defenseman in NHL history to notch a point in as many consecutive outings. He also became the sixth to register at least one assist in as many games in a row.

The result of Karlsson’s red-hot run is that he now finds himself flirting with top spot in scoring among all defensemen. Though not yet at the 40-point plateau and nine points back of teammate and top-scoring blueliner Brent Burns, Karlsson’s incredible production since the end of the first quarter — he has 28 points in his past 22 games — has seen him climb to a tie for fifth in scoring, fifth in power play production and eighth in points per game among defensemen. With that, any chatter about Karlsson failing to fit in San Jose is dead and buried. Granted, it never should have existed in the first place.

The fact of the matter is that there hasn’t been a moment this season in which Karlsson was really and truly struggling to perform. While the raw production wasn’t there, the processes that have led Karlsson to such staggering point totals were firmly in place.

Consider that from the start of the season through to Nov. 15, when Karlsson and San Jose played their 20th game of the season, the Sharks’ all-star defenseman ranked sixth in Corsi percentage (60.5), 10th in shots percentage (57.6), sixth in scoring chance percentage (59) and 19th in high-danger chance percentage (56.6) among the 119 defenders to play at least 250 minutes at five-a-side. He was undoubtedly, unquestionably elite. However, a .929 PDO — the result of a mediocre 6.3 on-ice shooting percentage and ugly .867 on-ice save percentage — spoiled otherwise brilliant play.

Karlsson’s unfortunate puck luck started to turn late in the first quarter of the season, though, and he’s been a nightmare for the opposition since. To wit, over his past 22 games, Karlsson ranks second in Corsi percentage (58.9), second in shots percentage (58), 25th in scoring chance percentage (54.5) and 28th in high-danger chance percentage (56.2) among defensemen with at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5. Pair his play-driving excellence with a 10.1 on-ice shooting percentage and .912 on-ice save percentage, which makes for a 1.013 PDO since Nov. 16, and it’s clear why Karlsson has erased all doubts that he could be exactly the player for the Sharks that he had long been with the Ottawa Senators.

More than simply get his offense on track, though, it’s beginning to appear as though Karlsson could be a contender for the Norris Trophy and make a second-half charge into one of the top-three spots in voting.

Karlsson’s underlying numbers help make his case, too. At 5-on-5, among defensemen with 250 minutes played, Karlsson is the blueline leader in Corsi percentage (59.7), sixth in shots percentage (57.8), 13th in scoring chance percentage (56.5) and 26th in high-danger chance percentage (56.4). The only statistic that Karlsson really falls behind the top-tier defenders in is goals for percentage — he’s 89th at 51.3 percent — but that is rising swiftly with his increased production and some more favorable goaltending behind him. Add to it that Karlsson ranks 11th in average ice time (24:54), third in shots (141) and, as noted earlier, top-five in points and he’s going to garner some attention from traditionalists.

And for those who think Burns’ high-scoring presence on the Sharks’ blueline might negate Karlsson’s candidacy, it should be noted that there is precedent for two defenders from the same team garnering serious Norris attention. Not all that long ago, the Detroit Red Wings saw Nick Lidstrom and Chris Chelios finish one-two in Norris voting during the 2001-02 campaign. In 2006-07, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, both with the Anaheim Ducks, finished second and third. While neither finished top three, then-Ottawa Senators defensemen Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden landed fourth and fifth in voting during the 2005-06 season, as well.

Truth be told, though, it won’t matter much to anyone in San Jose where Karlsson finishes in Norris voting come season’s end if he continues to play as he has since mid-November. At this rate, the Sharks’ sights are set on a much more important piece of hardware. And with Karlsson making San Jose’s blueline that much more fearsome, there’s no telling what kind of noise the Sharks may be able to make come the post-season.

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