Senators Alphabet: K is for Karlsson

K is for Karlsson, as in Erik Karlsson. Karlsson's stock has risen considerably with his excellent play this year. After a good sophomore season in which Karlsson made the All-Star game for the first time, expectations were high as he entered his third season in the NHL. It's safe to say Karlsson has exceeded even the most optimistic Ottawa fan's dreams. A second straight All-Star selection, multiple, long-standing Senators records broken, Norris and Hart talk since the beginning of 2012 - the kid has been good.

Yet as the trade deadline passed and thoughts shifted to the stretch drive and possible playoff match-ups many Sens fans began to worry. Ottawa's most likely first round match-up is Boston. The thought of #17 for the black and gold chasing a puck down in Ottawa's end as Ottawa's #65 calmly collects the puck behind his own net only to turn a corner and get Millered by Lucic is the worst-case-scenario Sens fans dread.

Karlsson hasn't played any playoff hockey in two years. His only NHL playoff experience came at the end of his rookie season when he took part in Ottawa's six game series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Karlsson has developed significantly since his rookie season but doubt still exists over whether he can continue to elevate his game in the post-season. The question remains: what can we expect from Karlsson in the post-season?

Playoff comparisons are difficult. Statistical samples are small. Players may be in the league for years and have only a handful of playoff games to their name (Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk) or none (Jay Bouwmeester). The small samples we do have are skewed: seven regular season games might mean playing six different teams all at home; seven playoff games might be a hard-fought series against the toughest shutdown defensemen and Vezina-calibre goaltending in the league. In the regular season, even terrible teams win a third of the games. In the playoffs a player might be on an 8th seeded team playing the Presidents' Trophy-winning club who'll sweep them without breaking a sweat. All of these things make suggesting how one player will perform in the heightened atmosphere of the Stanley Cup playoffs extremely difficult.

But let's do it anyway!

To get a better understanding of what Erik Karlsson's playoff potential might be, I'll examine the regular season and playoff statistics of three other defensemen from the past two regular seasons and playoffs, as well as their numbers from the current campaign (2009-10 to 2011-12). These defensemen are also of a similar size (and by size I mean height, because few NHL players weigh less than Karlsson) and play a similar, offensively-minded game. These players (Doughty, Letang) are often compared to Karlsson when discussing what his new contract might look like, and to illustrate his statistical dominance this season (Campbell). I'll be looking at standard statistics (GP-G-A-PTS), but also TOI/G (average time on ice per game), PP TOI/G (average powerplay time on ice per game), SH TOI/G (average shorthanded time on ice per game), TkA (takeaways), GvA (giveaways), Rel Corsi (Relative Corsi), and Rel Corsi QoC (Relative Corsi Quality of Competition).

Let's look at Karlsson's career and compare it with the careers of Brian Campbell, Drew Doughty, and Kris Letang:

Erik Karlsson:

2009-10 R 60 5 21 26 21 47 20:06 3:21 0:05 -0.179 7.6
2009-10 P 6 1 5 6 7 7 25:51 4:37 0:02 -1.860 16.5
2010-11 R 75 13 32 45 56 79 23:30 3:39 1:28 0.491 5.1
2011-12 R 70 19 51 70 58 71 25:10 3:48 0:32 0.693 11.5

Brian Campbell:

2009-10 R 68 7 31 38 23 38 23:12 2:54 0:37 -0.260 5
2009-10 P 19 1 4 5 5 16 19:34 2:21 0:09 0.120 14.7
2010-11 R 65 5 22 27 21 42 22:58 2:02 1:44 0.120 4.2
2010-11 P 7 1 2 3 5 9 26:26 2:57 1:30 2.614 -6.2
2011-12 R 69 4 40 44 27 39 26:55 4:18 1:16 0.789 10

Drew Doughty:

2009-10 R 82 16 43 59 20 76 24:58 4:25 2:01 0.932 5.5
2009-10 P 6 3 4 7 2 5 27:25 5:09 2:20 5.063 1.6
2010-11 R 76 11 29 40 22 77 25:38 4:10 2:02 0.731 9.1
2010-11 P 6 2 2 4 3 10 27:08 4:54 2:19 1.228 9.6
2011-12 R 65 9 21 30 23 56 25:00 3:50 2:20 0.955 -3.6

Kris Letang:

2009-10 R 73 3 24 27 28 48 21:33 2:49 1:22 0.230 12.1
2009-10 P 13 5 2 7 3 15 23:15 4:08 1:03 -13.785 6.4
2010-11 R 82 8 42 50 39 52 24:02 4:28 2:06 0.281 9.3
2010-11 P 7 0 4 4 2 11 26:32 6:37 1:56 -13.281 20.9
2011-12 R 40 9 22 31 21 30 25:03 4:21 1:41 0.785 8.93

What does this sample illustrate? Several things. Context is extremely important. In a small sample, Corsi numbers can become quite skewed. Kris Letang's numbers indict this discrepancy. But these stats also show the difference organizational depth can make in the playoffs. In the 2009-10 playoffs, 6 of the 7 defensemen Pittsburgh dressed played more shorthanded than Letang, including shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik and a not-thirty-seven-year-old Sergei Gonchar. In addition, Letang wasn't the go to triggerman on the powerplay, as Gonchar average almost two minutes more per game than Letang. Alex Goligoski also gave Letang some protection by averaging nearly three minutes on the powerplay, providing the Pens with another offensive threat. Also, it helps when your competition was the relatively weak Ottawa Senators. The 2010-11 playoffs were a similar story. Milan Michalek's brother Zbynek Michalek was an absolute beast for Pittsburgh: he averaged 5:27 on the powerplay, and 3:31 shorthanded while playing a shutdown role with Brooks Orpik. Goligoski's PP time was replaced by Paul Martin (replaced exactly, both average 2:59/G on the PP). The result? Pittsburgh's defensive depth protected Letang and allowed him to make a greater contribution offensively (as his Rel Corsi numbers show). He was tied for 3rd in Rel Corsi for the playoffs, behind Marc-Andre Bergeron and Keith Yandle (bizarrely, he was tied with Andy Sutton).

Brian Campbell's playoff minutes spiked last year because of the injury suffered by Chicago's Brent Seabrook. Campbell's playoff minutes had decreased in the two seasons prior to last year's playoffs after playing an average of 29:19 for the Sharks in the 07-08 post-season. His decline in ice time was more because of organizational depth (the emergence of Keith and Seabrook as an elite tandem) than his play (his Rel Corsi and his point-per-game average during his tenure in Chicago were fairly consistent). However his Corsi stats from the 2010-11 playoffs should give us pause. Asked to log more minutes against an elite team like the Canucks was a tall order for Campbell. His Rel Corsi QoC suggests that he often found himself in a shutdown role (2.614 vs. Keith's 2.100) and his miserable -6.2 Rel Corsi rating indicates he struggled with the increased responsibility.

Missing training camp and hampered by injuries, Doughty's play has declined this season. However, his performance in each of the past two seasons earned him the reputation of being an explosive offensive threat from the blue line. In both playoff performances Doughty increased his points-per-game ratio while playing against stiffer competition than in the regular season. In 2009-10, Doughty was third in post-season Rel Corsi QoC behind Ottawa's shutdown pair of Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. While Doughty put up 3 goals and 4 assists in only 6 games against the 3rd most difficult competition, it should be noted that the top seven players in this category made first round exits.

What does this all mean for Karlsson? He will still put up points. In general, Doughty, Letang, and Campbell produced at similar P/G ratios in the playoffs as the regular season. This applies to the last few seasons for Dan Boyle and Nicklas Lidstrom as well (I compiled/looked at their stats as well but didn't include them to keep the length of this post sort of reasonable). In his only post-season, Karlsson elevated his play and was a point-per-game player in the 2009-10 playoffs, despite only being a .43/G scorer in the regular season.

Of course, match-ups still matter: in terms of the Senators' team matchup and whether Karlsson will be required to be a shutdown defenseman (like Campbell was last season). It is almost inevitable that Karlsson will be put in more difficult situations this post-season. Minutes increase in the playoffs for elite players. Letang's progression illustrates this. His playoff minutes have increased by about two full minutes each season and I would expect Karlsson's minutes to increase as well. In his first and only playoffs, Karlsson played almost six minutes more per game. I think he could realistically push 30:00+ TOI/G this year. This season he's played 27+ minutes in more than a dozen times, including three performances of 30+ minutes. These extra minutes will have to go somewhere. Like Letang, Doughty, and Campbell (last season at least), his powerplay time will increase, as will his even strength time. It seems inevitable though, that he will play at least some time on the penalty kill.

It's interesting to note the takeaways/giveaways stats. Many of us on Silver Seven utilize these stats as we try to understand how his dominate offense is his best defense (and of course, to award him the Norris over PK King Shea Weber). It makes sense that offensive defensemen, especially game changing players like Karlsson, will give the puck up often trying to be creative. And Karlsson does give the puck away a lot. But he also takes it away a lot, as we've noticed. What surprised me most was that these other offensive defensemen (including Boyle and Lidstrom) don't take the puck away with anywhere near the same frequency as Karlsson. Doughty's best giveaway/takeaway ratio is this season, when he records 2.4 giveaways for every takeaway. Campbell generally has twice as many giveaways as takeaways. This season, Karlsson has averaged one takeaway for every 1.2 giveaways. By comparison, Letang averages a takeaway for every 1.6 giveaways this season. This season, Karlsson has ten more takeaways than the next defenseman (Duncan Keith, 48), and is currently tied for 12th (with Jason Spezza) out of all skaters. He is the only defenseman to appear in the top 30 in this category. Simply put, he is better than all other defenseman at this.

Of course, his fellow Senators defensemen can help him out. If Kuba can continue his steady two-way play, eating up huge minutes in all situations, this will help Karlsson. If Gonchar can get hot (hey, it could happen!) this would help Karlsson out considerably (creating a situation similar to what he had going on with Letang in 2009-10). If Jared Cowen can raise his defensive play in his first post-season, just as Karlsson raised his offensive play in his, Cowen could eat up the bulk of the tough defensive minutes. Karlsson (and the Sens) will be in trouble if poor, unreliable play results in MacLean shortening his bench to 4 or 5 defensemen.

The lapses in discipline that have characterized his play the last couple of weeks also need to stop if he is to succeed in the playoffs. More symptomatic of increased frustration than an indication of his style of play, these lapses and their resulting penalties have increased as attention, both on ice and in the media, have increased. Karlsson's game generally demonstrates maturity (he is only 21) and this suggests that he can play disciplined hockey in the playoffs. While the strictness of the officiating in the playoffs generally decreases as the spring progresses, cheap stick work (of the kind Karlsson has committed recently) generally still gets noticed. As his rapid ascendency continues, opposition attention will continue to increase. Dealing with it in a disciplined manner will only help his game.

Karlsson has one advantage going into the playoffs. In today's NHL, offensive defensemen are often overshadowed by their higher scoring teammates. Last season, Vancouver aimed to shutdown Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, not Brian Campbell. This season, whoever plays Pittsburgh is most worried about Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and James Neil, not Letang. More so than any other defenseman in the NHL this season, the Sens' opponents will be looking to shutdown Karlsson, not the other way around. And those of us who watch him game in and game out know few have been successful stopping #65 this season.

In the playoffs, Erik Karlsson will...

log big minutes, but won't put up as much offense50
have stats similar to the regular season104
win the Conn Smythe!44

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