Erik Karlsson has always been an extremely versatile player.
Those who watch 82-plus games of the Swedish sensation every year understand he’s a diverse, two-way defenseman, while the mainstream media surrounding the NHL have been reluctant to give him such a title since he came into the league in 2009.
Now, just over a week into the 2016-17 season, the vibe occasional viewers are giving off is beginning to change. Even the experts based in the nation’s capital are noticing a difference.
Ever since Karlsson’s blunder in Game 1 that led to Auston Matthews scoring The Greatest Goal in Maple Leafs History, his defensive game has seemed to be more polished than ever. What was great before is now looking more along the lines of outstanding.
And though we’ve been giving Senators new head coach Guy Boucher credit for nearly every positive part of Ottawa’s play so far, this one might be his to claim, as well.
Former coaches of Karlsson seemed to have the same opinion of his game. He’s a star when it comes to the offensive zone, but they’d like him to tighten up on defense.
Paul MacLean was more subtle, but you understood he wasn’t satisfied.
“Does he have to change his game? Not really. I think we just have to reinforce how we play when we don't have the puck and the type of competitive level we need to be at when we need to get the puck back. Erik is one of the elite skaters in the League and he can play defence better skating than anyone on our team. I don't think he really has to change anything, the only thing that would really have to change is our focus as a team when we don't have the puck.” - Paul MacLean. Sept. 17, 2014.
Then there was Dave Cameron. He was a tad bit more blunt.
“I don’t want to cut his home runs down, I want to cut his strikeouts down.” - Dave Cameron. Dec. 12, 2014.
But what say you, Guy?
"Whether it's Mr. Karlsson or any other player, you've got to recognize the great things that they do first. Very often we make that mistake of focusing on the weaknesses, that's all we talk about, and what happens over time is the weaknesses take over the strengths. We have, here, an unbelievable offensive defenseman. He's the best in the league. You've got to cherish that, you've got to respect that and you've got to drive your team with his strengths... What I'm going to ask him is to be outstanding offensively." - Guy Boucher. May 9, 2016.
That’s more like it.
Praise him in the media, erect a statue of him in front of the Canadian Tire Centre, and work with him to make his all-around game even better behind closed doors.
Karlsson has never needed more critics, and he’s certainly never gained any confidence from his coach being one of them.
So what has Boucher done so far to showcase Karlsson’s defensive expertise? Well, for one, he’s letting the 26-year-old do the talking.
The only player to be on ice for more scoring chances for than against (3-2), Karlsson is currently playing an average of 3:26 minutes a night on the penalty kill. He sits only behind Cody Ceci and Tom Pyatt as the Senators’ most frequent penalty killers.
Not only is he on pace for a career high in time on the PK, but Karlsson has never even broken the two-minute mark since he began his full-time NHL job in 2010.
2010-11 - 1:28
2011-12 - 0:33
2012-13 - 1:46
2013-14 - 1:30
2014-15 - 0:33
2015-16 - 1:19
Why didn’t he have a prominent role on the penalty kill before? Well, for one, adding another three minutes to his average 30-minutes of time on ice would be a bit excessive. But plain and simple, Karlsson’s previous coaches felt he was most valuable playing the full two minutes on the man advantage and at even strength.
It might’ve seemed a bit silly to have a player of his caliber on the ice for the straight forward task of blocking shots, waving your stick around and shooting the puck down the ice. Those who thought this before clearly understated how important it is to have defensemen that can settle down a puck that’s been rimmed around the boards and send it to the attacking team’s end in 0.5 seconds. Or steal the puck and send it down the ice in 0.5 seconds. Or find some open space and skate the puck out of danger and down the ice in 0.5 seconds.
Maybe the last one was a bit optimistic, but you get the point.
Poorly timed events aside, the main takeaway is that just when we thought he couldn’t possibly bring more to the table, another hidden talent arises.
And if he keeps making plays like this one on the penalty kill, it’ll be hard for Boucher to subtract his minutes.
Overall, the Lansdbro, Sweden, native is performing at an elite level in all three zones to start the season. His possession game is tops on the team, as usual, his shot suppression is looking great and he’s got seven points in four games. What more could you want?
It all comes back to that Boucher quote we saw 600 words ago. The Senators’ new bench boss wants drive his team with Karlsson’s strengths.
That philosophy is why there’s so much promise with the current coaching staff in Ottawa. Form your system around your best players; don’t force them to change who they are.
Boucher wants a strategy structured around “speed, speed, speed, speed” and pace, pace, pace.”
Those are real fragments of his quotes, by the way.
What’s Karlsson most famous for, other than manufacturing goals at a ridiculous rate? His speed.
Boucher demands a fast transition, quick breakout and a high pace. There’s less obsession with hits, decreased talk of toughness, and more focus on outworking the other team. Karlsson has likely never felt more at home.
So yes, the Professional Hockey Writers Association now have no more excuses. He plays the penalty kill and does it well, he’s still scoring at an astronomical pace and his all-around game has never looked better.
Oh, and he’s a plus-7. That usually helps, right?