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Silver Nuggets: Why we don't have to worry about Erik Karlsson

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Karlsson is the best in the NHL at getting the puck out of the zone with control.
Karlsson is the best in the NHL at getting the puck out of the zone with control.
USA TODAY Sports

Let's get something clear right off the bat: Erik Karlsson is the Senators best player. Forward, defense, goaltender - none of them are better than Erik Karlsson. Yes, Bobby Ryan has scored 30 goals. Yes, Craig Anderson is putting up spectacular numbers. Yes, Mark Stone is amazing. Yet, none of them are elite, but Karlsson is. He won a Norris at 22, and this is what he's done since he's entered the league in 2009-10:

Erik Karlsson forever

You can see that this is ranked by points/game, and Karlsson's 0.75 rate is 0.14 HIGHER than the closest defenseman, Duncan Keith. Keith is the only one to have more points than Karlsson - three more - but in fifty more games played. People were surprised at Victor Hedman's newly found offense this year, and talked about him establishing himself as a premier offensive player. This is true, and Hedman's points/60 at EV is fantastic. Just to put this into perspective though, Hedman has played nine more NHL games than Karlsson and has almost 100 less points.

Now, you might be saying "Yes Ary, we all know that Karlsson is elite offensively, but he's shoddy defensively!" My counter to that is look at the other players on this list and the teams that they play on. How is their defensive depth? Do they play with three other partners - one of whom is a declining veteran who should be playing third pair minutes, another was in the AHL last year, and the last one is primarily AHL quality? Think back to the last time Karlsson had a stable defensive partner, which I would argue is 2011-12 (when he won the Norris), but you can make a case for 2013-14. Though the Senators were terrible defensively as a whole, Erik Karlsson put up 74 points and had the fourth best Corsi Rel % in the league. This takes a look at the team's shot attempts when the player was on the ice, subtracted by the team's shot attempts as a whole with the player off the ice. When Karlsson was on the ice, the Senators were a 57% possession team, and when he was off, the Senators were a 48% possession team. That's the difference between elite - the four teams who had team CF% of 56%+ all made the Stanley Cup Final and three won - and out of the playoffs. My opinion, and Darryl Sutter's opinion, is that the best defense is keeping the puck as far away from your own net as possible, and possession numbers really help indicate that. When Karlsson was on the ice, the team is usually in the other zone instead of trying to defend.

In addition to playing with multiple partners, Karlsson is playing a ton of minutes and this can hinder his play. The other three defenseman who had better Corsi Rel% numbers in 2013-14 were PK Subban, Matt Niskanen, and Jake Muzzin - all of whom play 3-4 minutes less than Karlsson per game. This is why the intermission "analysis" on Sunday by Billy Jaffe (who is he?), Adam Oates, Strombo, and Damien Cox, which centered on calling Karlsson "lazy" and "uninspired" is audacious. Most teams have three capable top-four defenseman. How many does Ottawa have? Well with Marc Methot out, I'd argue that they have one. Take a look at the game-winning goal on Sunday:

This is the second time this season that I've seen Karlsson be miles away from a skater on a sure breakaway, only to catch up and still get scored on. The "analysts" didn't even focus on David Legwand there, and instead, focus on Karlsson overskating the puck and swinging his stick. I just think it's hilarious that this turned out worse (!) for Karlsson because he caught up in the first place, which is something that 99% of the league wouldn't have been able to do. This is akin to saying that it wouldn't been better for Karlsson's "defensive image" if he were to have skated back but not reached the Leafs player, who then would've potted a breakaway goal.

The other time this season was Kris Versteeg's goal against the Hawks:

A lot of interesting reaction to Kris Versteeg’s goal in Chicago’s 5-4 win over Ottawa last week. Players on both teams were astonished when Erik Karlsson chased down Kris Versteeg on the breakaway. "We couldn’t believe he caught him," Clarke Macarthur said. "He had this little smile on his face like he knew he was going to do it." "I was like, ‘Holy Crap,’" Versteeg said. "How did he get here?"

The last two points I want to touch on are inspired by two tweets:

Travis Yost had a great article at the end of last season arguing that the Senators are too reliant on Karlsson, and this seems to have carried over to this year. Opposing coaches have said multiple times this season that they build gameplans against the Senators around stopping Erik Karlsson, with Lightning coach Jon Cooper saying that "50% of the pregame meeting was about him". Justin Bourne had a really great tactical piece and called Erik Karlsson "hockey's best breakout machine", citing his league-leading ability to exit the zone cleanly. Instead of focusing on all the things Karlsson does right over the course of the game, fans, analysts, and hockey management alike focus on the things a player isn't. A prime example of this was intermission panelist Adam Oates inability to supplement Alexander Ovechkin, leading to many in the league citing is +/- instead of focusing on his 50+ goals. Instead of focusing on everything that a player isn't, teams should optimize the lineup around a player's strengths. If Karlsson is weak on the boards or at defending the cycle game, either a) play him with your best faceoff man so he can win the draw to Karlsson and allow him to exit the zone or b) give Karlsson offensive zone starts and let him defend with his great skating and active stick off the rush? From the same 30 thoughts column as the Versteeg quote:

After initially losing the puck, Versteeg got it back. He scored, making Karlsson look foolish on a fake. "Obviously, he thought I was going to shoot it," the Chicago forward said. PJ Stock did a great segment last weekend, illustrating both the good and bad of Karlsson’s game. Stock showed how Karlsson gets into trouble in his own zone, because he "always looks for an offensive play out of a defensive situation." One example was Karlsson taking himself out of position by protecting against a pass he thought he could intercept — a pass that never came. This is the next evolution for him.

Unfortunately, Ottawa's lack of defensive personnel prevents the coaching staff from using Karlsson optimally, and until that happens, it's really hard to slag Karlsson's play; he's being asked to do too much. Yes, his game has to evolve, as Friedman argues above, but the Senators shouldn't try to change anything that makes him special offensively to accomodate for the lack of defensive help Karlsson has on a nightly basis. Using his confident stick and skating ability has helped the Senators on a number of levels, and I hope that we continue to see Erik Karlsson do what he does best - be one of the best defensemen in the game.

PS: In the game against the Leafs, Karlsson was on the ice for 33 shot attempts for (CF) at even-strength. The entire Leafs team directed 34 shot attempts at Robin Lehner at even-strength. When he was on the ice, Lehner sv% was .770, a far cry from his stellar .920+, so maybe the turnovers just went in today and instead of looking at his overall play, we're looking at mistakes turning into goals - which has some luck associated with it.

Sens Links

  • The Senators played two weekend games since our last Nuggets. Here are the recaps from Saturday night's shootout loss against the Winnipeg Jets. [Silver SevenRank the PerformancesOttawa CitizenSensChirpSenShotSenstats]
  • The Sens also lost a hard fought game agains the Leafs. Both teams were on the second half of a back to back. [Silver SevenRank the PerformancesOttawa CitizenSensChirpSenShotSenstats]
  • I really appreciated Michaela's coverage of the 4 Nations Cup! The good team beat the bad team in the Gold Medal game - i'll let you figure out which is which ;) [Silver Seven]
  • Here's a look ahead at the games this week, where the Sens travel to the West Coast for the first time this season. [Silver Seven - Week Ahead]
  • Here's a weekly preview from the folks over at Bonk's Mullet! I'll also mention here that over $2000 was raised for the Sens Foundation and the Canadian Military Families Fund over the weekend, so congrats to everyone who donated to #SensMoTB and to Eric for organizing this again! [Bonk's Mullet]
  • Today is Remembrance Day in Canada, and it's pretty special since it's the 100 year anniversary of WWI and especially in light of the recent events in Ottawa. Today, TSN ran a fantastic column on Ottawa legend and an integral part of the Silver Seven that we get our namesake from, Frank McGee. [TSN]
  • In case you needed more evidence that the Leafs are the #worst, here's a video that'll help remind you. [6th Sens]
  • Peter with a column on recent Senators news. [Eye On the Sens]
  • The first positive article on Jared Cowen in forever, from Mrs. O. Still not expecting much, but some encouraging signs. If he turns out to be more than an AHL defenseman, it'll certainly help the Senators defense, which still needs a ton of improvement. [Silver Seven]
  • Jack also has some positive thoughts on Cowen and the kid line, saying that the future is bright in Ottawa. It's also interesting to note that at practice today, MacLean has chosen to split up the kid line in order to balance out the offense. Stone is with Turris, Hoffman is with Zibanejad, and Lazar anchors the third line. SenShot]
  • Trevor has an article on whether the Senators are contenders. The early answer? Nope. [SenShot]
  • Your Monday prospect update from Ian! Things aren't looking too swell in Binghamton.. [Silver Seven]
  • Jeff has more on this poor start for the BSens, taking a look at the positives and the negatives of this season. [SenShot]
  • Jeff also has a game recap of the BSens weekend loss to Wilkes-Barre (PIT). It certainly seems like the BSens players overall lack consistency in their play [SenShot]
  • Some positive news! Two former BSens stars are doing well in the NHL and were 5th and 6th round picks. Know who they are? Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone. [SenShot]
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Thanks for reading!