Erik Karlsson is the best player on the Ottawa Senators, one of the very best defensemen in the entire NHL and maybe the most singularly electrifying player I have ever had the privilege of watching live. By the time I was old enough to make it to the rink to watch 99 and 66 play, they were no longer the destroyers of worlds they once were. I've been lucky enough to see Crosby play a couple of times, and I am a huge fan of his game, but let's call him a hair below Karlsson when it comes to 'This guy can make magic happen on the ice.'
There. Good. I'm glad I got all that out of the way because I would hate to be accused of trying to tear down one of Ottawa's few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season. Karlsson's all that and a bag of chips. He could just stand to do a bit more. And that's what has to come next.
I got on this train of thought while reading this surprisingly insightful article from NHL.com. The power rankings part is silly, as they often are, but the bit about Norris candidates at the top was really excellent. I've included an image of the Usage Chart author Corey Masiask provided below:
A couple of things jumped out at me:
1) Wow Shea Weber plays stupidly hard ice. He's also kind of getting beaten up while doing it, but good on him for trying.
That last point is key when I think about what has to happen next for Karlsson and the Senators to be successful. Keith and Doughty are two very good comparables for him, but both play for Stanley Cup contenders with deep rosters. In Chicago, Oduya and Hjalmarsson play the toughest mins and play them well. In L.A, it's a little more evenly distributed, but look at Doughty's deployment in the playoffs: he goes from 55% O-zone starts in the regular season down to the low 40s (!!) at the drop of a hat. I don't know this explicitly because I don't follow the Kings closely enough, but I'd bet a lot of cash that this is a deliberate tactic by Sutter. The team is deep enough to spread the load around but when the going gets tough, lean extra hard on your stud D-man.
And that is a little bit different from the way Karlsson has historically been used, and the way I think he needs to be used going forward. Ottawa is not as deep as Chicago, nor is Karlsson being saved for the playoffs like Doughty in L.A. In fact, his deployment is almost identical in both the regular season and the playoffs. For this particular Senators team, with this particular defense corps, I think that needs to change. If only as an experiment, it would be worthwhile to entertain the idea of playing Karlsson more like one would Chara or, if you want to be a bit more conservative, Pietrangelo.
Ottawa's greatest difficulty is preventing shots, and much of that stems from a chronic inability to break out of their own end cleanly. Karlsson is, quite literally, a one man breakout. The added bonus of Karlsson presumably playing the tough minutes to at least a draw is the juicy cover that would provide for green, overmanned second and third pairings. If Jared Cowen really needs to be in the NHL, it should be in the cushiest of circumstances. Cody Ceci has looked good for the most part, but he too would benefit from playing some softer minutes.
I don't think Karlsson needs to drastically improve his defensive game, and I don't think he needs to get 'tougher' or whatever new cliché one might throw out there. He does need to be used differently, though, and he'll need to be O.K with playing that hard ice. As long as the Sens' back end is this weak, it might the only way.