Why, if I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that was done by a Good Canadian Boy who was beloved by the media his entire career. But no, the best defenseman on the planet did that in the 2017 playoffs: Erik Karlsson.
It’s not even worth discussing who the best is anymore, because Karlsson took his game to a whole different level in the playoffs. One of the arguments against him was that his teams had never gone far, but the fact that he singlehandedly took the Senators within one goal of the Stanley Cup Finals while playing on one leg should be enough evidence that he is a superstar.
Senators fans always knew how good he was, as he has been treated like a God for years. But it seems like the mainstream media around the league are finally beginning to realize that he’s not just an offenseman. At this stage in his career, your ignorance is showing if you can’t appreciate Karlsson.
First of all, everyone knows that he has won the Norris Trophy twice. That in itself should convince people that he’s the league’s best, because only thirteen players all-time have multiple Norris wins, and Duncan Keith is the only other active player with two.
My opinion of Karlsson will not change with the results of the Norris Trophy next week, but it is incredible that if he wins (which I believe he will), he will be just the ninth defenseman to win three times. Even with a loss though, his play in the regular season and playoffs will not be diminished one bit.
Everybody knows how good he is on offense, but lets go through the numbers anyway. Through his first eight seasons in the NHL, he has 456 points in 556 games. That puts him thirteenth all time in points amongst defensemen in their first eight seasons. Thirteenth may not sound otherworldly, but it is when you consider the era he is doing this in.
In the top 20, Karlsson is the only defenseman who had any of his first eight seasons in the 21st century. Nicklas Lidstrom played until 2012, but if we compare the beginning of his career to Karlsson’s, the offensive eras are completely different. Total goals per game in 1991 sat at 6.95, and in 2016 it was 5.45, so it’s an apples to oranges comparison.
In fact, only six of these 19 other defensemen had their first eight seasons extend into the 1990’s, which is a long time ago in the hockey world. So in reality, Karlsson’s offensive value should be even higher than 13th.
That is why he is listed as fourth in Offensive Point Shares (OPS—which rates players offensive contributions) behind only Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, and Denis Potvin. That is some pretty elite company.
The thing is, not many people denied how good he was offensively. The argument from the media was always “he’s incredible on offense, but he’s too soft defensively.” There was a point early in his career when that was a problem, but that didn’t last very long. Instead, he’s been one of the most impactful players at both ends of the ice along with Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid for a while now.
To demonstrate this, we can look at how well the Senators performed with Karlsson on the ice, and without him on the ice in the playoffs.
In 409 minutes of 5v5 ice time, Karlsson was on for 378 shot attempts for and 330 against (53.39%). Without him, Ottawa had 511 attempts for and 585 against (46.6%). To put that in the context of relative corsi, he was at +6.77%, which was first amongst all defensemen with at least 150 minutes played.
What’s even more incredible is how much the Senators dominated in actual goal scoring with Karlsson on the ice. Ottawa scored 26 even strength goals and allowed a mere 11 with Karlsson playing, which comes out to an asinine 70.27%. When he was off the ice though? Ottawa scored only 14 and allowed 25 (35.9%).
Despite some abysmal results with Karlsson on the bench, he singlehandedly made Ottawa get to a +4 goal differential at even strength. Not many players can do that.
We love to talk about the improved depth of the Senators this season, and they certainly were better on the margins. But don’t fool yourselves: amongst the skaters, Erik Karlsson is the only reason why Ottawa was able to get to the Conference Finals for the first time in a decade.
As the saying goes: your offense is your best defense, and Karlsson was dominant because of how often he had the puck. It’s certainly much easier breaking out of your zone if you’re capable of passes like this too:
This stretch pass by Karlsson was stupid good pic.twitter.com/oml3X6nS7y— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) April 17, 2017
And if there are still some mainstream media members who think he’s incapable of playing in his own zone or that he is not physical enough, they clearly did not watch him in the playoffs.
Every single shift he was shutting the opposition down, and the second he retrieved the puck it was in the offensive zone. His ability to transition from defense to offense is unprecedented, and there’s really no way to quantify that besides just telling people to watch the damn guy play.
You know what the absolute best part of this entire thing is though?
The fact that he was a warrior by playing through two horrendous injuries that would keep every single one of us out for months. Playing injured is supposed to be reserved for Canadian players who Don Cherry loves, but instead Karlsson showed that he’s got just as much heart as they do.
In fact, I’d argue even more. Karlsson didn’t just play well enough in the playoffs, he took his game to new heights. And that is why it is impossible to ignore him any longer.
Without a shred of doubt in my mind, Karlsson is the best defenseman in the game.