Faster, Higher, Stronger: Erik Karlsson on the Eve of the Olympics
We all know the picture.
Shot through the glass, the cut-out for the photographer's camera lens is clearly visible. You can just make out the frame of Daniel Alfredsson in the foreground. Matt Cooke's in the background, his body's taking him away from the action, but his head's turned back, watching. His mouth hangs open, a look of surprise on his face. However, the frame is dominated by Erik Karlsson, howling in pain. His yell was so quick, so forceful, so agonizing that his helmet chinstrap popped loose, dangles near his mouth. His anguished expression reveals a previously unknown missing tooth. His left arm reaches out, bracing on his teammate.
It's a memorable picture, capturing the moment of injury.
We all know what happened next. The clip of Karlsson falling, trying to get up, trying to put weight on his injured Achilles, but failing is all too familiar. Ultimately, he was helped off the ice by Chris Phillips and athletic trainer Gerry Townend. As the game wore on, Sens fans wondered how bad it was. Was his Achilles ruptured? Severed? Against the odds, was he ok?
Karlsson was the reigning Norris Trophy winner at the time of his injury, but for the first month of the abbreviation 2013 season, Karlsson was something more. Before his injury, Coach Paul MacLean suggested Karlsson might be the best player in the league; Bob McKenzie dropped his name in early Hart Trophy talk. Teammate Marc Methot described pre-injury Karlsson as slowing "the entire game down. When he had the puck teams kind of froze, because they didn't know what to expect from Erik Karlsson. Whether he was going to make a long breakout pass, or dangle two guys then make that pass; that's what he had as a weapon". For a player whose game is built on speed, the severing of expectations happened quickly, when he went down in Pittsburgh.
Karlsson's game is built on speed and agility. That's what was most concerning about his mostly severed Achilles. His season was over surely, but once we learned that he would recover in 4-to-6 months, the focus of concern shifted to what kind of player would return. End-to-end rushes, pinpoint deking, and that explosive first stride - would Karlsson still have those offensive weapons in his arsenal when he resumed play? Would his surgically repaired tendon allow him to return as fast and as agile as he was before the injury? Had we already seen the best from a player who drew comparisons to Bobby Orr in his Norris-winning season?
It's a memorable picture, capturing the moment expectations changed.
He returned in just 10 weeks from an injury which normally takes months to health from. Months of rehab, months of therapy, and months of off-ice workouts to regain fitness. He returned at the end of the regular season, missing just 31 games. He played well in the final three regular season games he played, recording four assists. He added another eight points in 10 playoff games. Karlsson's return from injury was just as impressive as the rest of his young career.
But he wasn't the same. He wasn't 100%. What percentage he had healed was anyone's guess. Karlsson himself noted the difference in his playing style post-injury: "every once in a while it works, and you feel pretty good ... Every once in a while, something happens." He couldn't rely on his skill in the same way. We were left with flashes of the player who ruled Ottawa's blue line mere months before. The injury didn't take away his vision, his shot, his passing. But his explosiveness was missing. The effortless speed just wasn't there.
Of course it made sense that he wasn't immediately the same. It made sense that 10 weeks of intense rehab couldn't erase his injury. Others who have suffered similar injuries indicate it takes about a year to return to form. In the midst of his impressive comeback, Karlsson knew he wouldn't really be back for a long time. When asked about when he would be 100%, when he would be normal again, he smiled and replied, "January 23rd, 2014, maybe." So how did Karlsson do on January 23, 2014? He notched a goal and an assist in a 4-3 shootout loss to Tampa Bay. His Corsi for percentage was 69.8% and he logged a season-high 34:45 of ice time.
Looks like we can add fortune teller to his skill set.
February 13th marks the one year anniversary of Karlsson's Achilles injury. On February 12, he makes his Olympic debut.
Sochi might not have been on his mind as he clutched the arms of Phillips and Townend for support as he skated off the ice in Pittsburgh a year ago, but in the days and weeks that followed the Olympics probably loomed large for Karlsson. Just as surely as he worked hard to get back in time for the 2013 playoffs, he also wanted to be back and playing his best hockey when Sweden named its Olympic team.
Hockey players often make their names day-in and day-out on the strength of an 82-game schedule. Awards and scoring titles, end of season honours that reflect the consistency of the game's elite, cement a player's reputation.
But for players with Karlsson's talent, the goalposts shift. The standard with which we judge Orrs, Lidstroms, and Crosbys, is how they perform when playing the best under the most pressure. Stanley Cup finals and major international tournaments establish legendary reputations. In his fifth pro season, Karlsson hasn't had playoff glory. But in Sochi, he has the opportunity to excel playing for a medal winner.
On Olympic-sized ice, Karlsson's speed and agility will be on full display. On Olympic- sized ice, Karlsson will change the question he's been asked the most during the past year. No longer will we wonder if he's 100%; instead, we'll start asking questions about when he'll reach his ceiling as a player.
On Olympic-sized ice, we'll finally forget that picture.