Erik Karlsson had a spectacular season, breaking the club record for points and assists by a defenceman and equalling the club record for goals by a defenceman. His Norris Trophy was the most significant individual trophy ever won by an Ottawa Senators player. Statistically speaking, one could make the argument it was the greatest season by a player in club history, up there with Dany Heatley's 50-goal seasons or Daniel Alfredsson's 100 point season.
Fresh off a 7-year $45.5 million contract extension, expectations are going to be huge. While we would all love it if Karlsson repeats last season's total, or shatters it with a 100-point season, it would be unreasonable to expect it every year. Were he to finish with 15 goals and 43 assists for 58 points, that is an excellent season for a defenceman, even at $6.5 million. But we can all imagine the reaction to Karlsson dropping 20 points after getting his contract.
Let's take a look at how other defencemen performed after some of the best seasons in NHL history. Is Karlsson likely to improve in some areas and possibly take a step back in others?
Bobby Orr had 64 points in his third NHL season in just game 67 games. How did he do in his fourth season? Orr had 120 points in 76 games, and followed that up with seasons of 139, 117, 101, 122 and 135 points. However, that was a different era of offensive hockey and Orr is the greatest defenceman of all time. Everyone agrees Karlsson won't have six consecutive seasons of 100+ points.
Paul Coffey had 89 points in his second season, and followed that up with seasons of 96, 126, 121 and 138 points. He then had back-to-back 67 point seasons (in 59 and 46 games) before returning to 100 points with seasons of 113 and 103. This again was a different era of hockey and Coffey played with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Mario Lemieux.
Orr and Coffey are the only two defencemen in NHL history to have bettered Karlsson's 78 point season by the age of 21. However, there are a few more comparisons if one removes the age requirement and compare to seasons within the first three years of a player's career.
Sens broadcaster Denis Potvin had 76 points in his second season, and followed that with seasons of 98, 80, 94 and 101 points. Gary Suter had 68 points as a 21-year old rookie, and had seasons of 48, 91, 62, 76, 70, 55 and 81 points. Sergei Zubov had 89 points as a 23-year old, then had 36 points (in 38 games) and then 66 points in 64 games. Mark Howe started his career in the WHA, but had 80 points as a 24-year old NHL rookie, then had seasons of 65 (in 63 games), 53, 67, 57 and 82 points. Phil Housley's 77 points as a 19-year old was the first of 10-consecutive seasons with 60+ points.
What does this mean? Players that have had seasons like Karlsson did early in his career, have been able to keep it up. Karlsson was only 21 last season, and it isn't unreasonable to assume he could still get better. However, most of those players did this in the 1980s where scoring goals was a lot easier.
Karlsson was tied with not-Norris winner Shea Weber for the NHL led among defencemen with 19 goals. Karlsson's 261 shots on net led all NHL defencemen and led all Senators players. Considering how often Karlsson has the puck, and how willing he is to shoot the puck, I don't see any reason to believe that his shots on goal total would decline significantly. Unless, the opposition makes a conscious effort to take away Karlsson's shot and close him down, which brings me to my next point.
If there is one area where he is likely to drop, it is his assist count. His 59 assists were 10 more than any other defenceman. Karlsson was on the ice for 135 of his team's goals, three ahead of Evgeni Malkin for the NHL lead. The only players in the NHL with more assists than Karlsson were Henrik Sedin and Claude Giroux. Jason Spezza, an excellent set-up man in his own right, had nine fewer assists than his teammate.
Still, Karlsson has excellent vision on the ice and his passing, both on the breakout and in the offensive zone, are among the best in the league. He's also extremely quick and a great stickhandler, so if the opposition does take away the shot, he has the skills to burn them with a pass.
Here is the main (only?) criticism of his game. He was not a regular on the penalty kill. He gives away the puck. At the start of the season, Paul MacLean said he would only give Karlsson a lot of minutes if he was comfortable that all those minutes were being played for Ottawa. Later in the season, MacLean rated Karlsson's one-on-one defending as near the top of the middle third of defencemen, or in other words just below the top 33%. With an another year's experience, I would certainly expect him to get better defensively, even though he is already above average.
Karlsson's defensive partner
Say what you will about Karlsson carrying Filip Kuba (and he did) but he did feel comfortable with Kuba. How many times do we recall Karlsson taking the puck behind the Senators net and rushing into the offensive zone? By most accounts, Marc Methot is an improvement on Kuba, so hopefully there shouldn't be an issue there. He could also be paired with Jared Cowen and the pair performed well for a few games while Kuba was injured.
While a couple of referees have labelled the Senators defenceman a diver, what is the impact of "Erik Karlsson - Norris Trophy winner"? Will he start to get breaks from referees that lesser players wouldn't get? Star players always great special treatment in sports. On the other hand, Karlsson will also get special treatment from the opposition. It was mentioned late in the season that he was beginning to cause the opposition to change their game plan to contain him. How will he react to a full season of close attention?
Senators playing style
Paul MacLean likes to play an offensive, puck-possesion kind of game. The Senators are going to get an infusion of young offensive talent this season, but it is young. Ottawa's offence and especially the power play, runs through Erik Karlsson. What does a player do if there is no play? Pass it to Karlsson. This can only help Karlsson's points total, though perhaps not the overall team. As of right now, aside from Jason Spezza, there is no other dominant offensive player on the club. MacLean gives Karlsson the ability to roam and make plays to utilise the best of his talents.
So, what would constitute a good reason for Karlsson? Is anything less than another Norris Trophy a disappointment? Having won a Norris Trophy already, I don't think he has to absolutely destroy the competition to earn the Norris again. But he would still have to win the scoring race among defencemen. With the Shea Weber pity party possibly running into high gear, it might be difficult to repeat.
Given that the other players that achieved what Karlsson did at such an age managed to keep it up, plus the Senators style of play and of course Karlsson's own talents, I don't think he will regress too much. I expect him to score around 20 goals and have between 45 and 50 assists. It is entirely possible he can repeat last season and hover around a point per game, however that would have him approaching generational talent, not just an excellent player. While that would be great for the Senators, it isn't a fair thing to expect. Defensively, we should see another year of improvement relative to last year. At the end of the day, he might not win the Norris, but he should be in the hunt for one this year and the following six years of his contract.