Erik Karlsson has quickly blossomed into one of the best defencemen in the National Hockey League. Yep, I said one of the best in the entire NHL.
The progress that the 21-year-old has made since being drafted 15th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2008 is remarkable. At the time of the draft, many fans had barely even heard of the Swede. Given his relative obscurity and listed weight of around 160 pounds (hard to believe, even with all of his equipment on), many were unsure of what to think when Daniel Alfredsson called Karlsson’s name at the podium.
The young defenceman was supposed to be a longer-term project for the Senators. However, he continued to rapidly improve and, after one extra season playing in Sweden, made the Senators’ roster in 2009 as a 19-year-old.
Much like David Rundblad this season, Karlsson struggled mightily in his debut in Ottawa. This prompted the team to send him down to its American Hockey League affiliate for some “seasoning”. After recording 11 points in 12 games with the Binghamton Senators, Karlsson was recalled and hasn’t looked back.
Indeed, just as his weight has steadily increased (though he’s still a meagre 180 pounds), virtually every facet of Karlsson’s game has improved in his three years in the league.
Offensive production is Karlsson’s calling card. He was 17th among defencemen in points last season and is off to a roaring start with 16 points in 18 games this season. He’s one of the best-skating defencemen in the NHL, he’s a top-notch puckhandler and passer, and he has an uncanny ability to direct pucks through mazes of bodies in front of goaltenders.
His defensive abilities, though, have been questioned.
Critics point to his –30 rating last season to illustrate why Karlsson isn’t a good player in his own end of the rink. However, Ottawa as a team last season had the worst plus-minus rating in the league at –52. Given how often Karlsson was on the ice, his frigid plus-minus rating isn’t surprising.
Another oft-cited criticism is his giveaway total of 79 last season. While it’s true that he does tend to make risky plays and many of his giveaways come at inopportune times, he’s not the only defenceman to give up the puck a lot. Last season, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, widely considered two of the best defencemen around, recorded 83 and 77 giveaways, respectively. The fact is, the more often you have the puck, the more often you’re bound to give it up.
As long as Karlsson keeps racking up the points and uses his quick feet and good stick-work when needed defensively, he’ll be able to enjoy a fruitful NHL career.
He’s already the Senators’ go-to player.
Karlsson has had a greater role on the penalty-kill since his rookie season, and he’s being trusted more in every situation. He’s 12th in the NHL in average ice time with 25:14 per game, and he plays almost three minutes more per game than any other player on the Senators’ roster.
The amazing thing about all the ice time is that Karlsson doesn’t look at all fatigued at the end of games – in fact, he’s able to skate at top speed no matter when you tune into a game.
The Senators’ record for most points in a season by a defenceman belongs to Norm MacIver, who recorded 63 points during the team’s atrocious 1992-1993 season. If there’s anyone who can break that record, Karlsson is the guy to do it.
At a time when Alfredsson’s career is winding down, Ottawa is looking for a new engine to power the team, and another Swede might just be that engine.
Watch out, NHL, because this guy is crazy good and he just keeps getting better.