Erik Karlsson: he's pretty good

Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators teases a child by mercilessly holding a stick out of his reach.

Erik Karlsson had a pretty miserable start to the season. He had only one point and was a -4 after his first six games, and he was playing the worst defense of his short NHL career. The rust is evidently off, however, as Karlsson has been playing some of the best hockey of his career as of late. With two goals and seven points in his last seven games, Karlsson has started showing once again why he is considered a key piece to the Senators' future.

There are two reference points to use to gauge a player's performance: his team and his league. Looking at either of these, it becomes apparent that Karlsson is off to an exceptional start to the year. With respect to how he compares to his teammates, Karlsson's 11 points on the year put him fourth among the Senators' top scorers, and ahead of players such as Mike Fisher, Alexei Kovalev, Peter Regin, and Milan Michalek. He's also only one point back of powerplay partner Sergei Gonchar, who you may recall has consistently been one of the top point scoring defensemen in the NHL.

Looking at defensemen across the league, Karlsson's four goals have him tied for second among blueliners, while his 11 points are good for 16th. He has more points than Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timmonen, Bryan McCabe, Brent Seabrook, Ed Jovanovski, Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, and countless other defensemen. What makes it that more impressive is that Karlsson's also doing this before his 21st birthday, making him three years younger than any of the defensemen with more points than him. Despite the strong set of defensemen picked in his 2008 draft class, Karlsson has more points than any of them:

Name GP G A P
Erik Karlsson 17 4 7 11
John Carlson 18 2 7 11
Tyler Myers 18 4 3 7
Alex Pietrangelo 18 0 7 7
Michael Del Zotto 16 1 4 5
Luke Schenn 16 0 4 4
Drew Doughty 9 1 2 3
Zach Bogosian 11 0 2 2

*Stats were current as of writing this on Sunday evening.

Now, Karlsson's strong offensive stats can be explained by a couple of things. First, his partner on the powerplay is Sergei Gonchar, who attracts a lot of the opposing team's attention and provides Karlsson with some nifty passes. However, only 5 of Karlsson's 11 points have been on the powerplay (and he doesn't play with Gonchar at even strength), so that's not the only explanation. The second explanation is that Karlsson gets a significant amount of icetime and responsibility because of Ottawa's relative lack of depth on the blueline. However, this answer ignores that Karlsson has earned his icetime through strong play, and also that his ice time isn't unheard of amongst players his age: Doughty and Del Zotto see more powerplay time than Karlsson, while all but Pietrangelo have more icetime per game. It also ignores the fact that Karlsson plays on a team that is in the bottom third of the league in goals for, limiting his opportunities to get points that come more freely to a player like John Carlson, whose Capitals average almost a goal more per game than the Senators.

Though it's early in the season, one must not forget that Karlsson finished off last year playing just as well as he is now, even without having Sergei Gonchar's assistance and mentorship. Including the playoffs, Karlsson had 18 points in his final 16 games of the 2009-10 season, including 5 goals. Adding it all up, that's 9 goals and 29 points in Karlsson's last 34 NHL games. Simply put, that's ridiculous.

Let's be clear: I don't expect Karlsson to keep up the 19 goal, 52 point pace he's on this year, and I fully expect him to go through some sophomore slumps like he did in his first few games (and like he did last night). However, I do think that the poise and skill he has shown in the offensive zone recently, while often a bit nervewracking, has been remarkable and worth some attention. GM Bryan Murray obviously expected big things from Karlsson when he traded up to draft him 15th overall in 2008 -- I just doubt he expected them so soon.

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