Tao of Stieb is an Ottawa-based Blue Jays blogger for sportsnet.ca and an avid Ottawa Senators fan.
It’s difficult to imagine that a two-time Norris Trophy winner and three-time All-Star would need to have their reputation burnished any further. But with his performance in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, Erik Karlsson is taking his moment in the national spotlight to raise his standing even further.
Sometimes, it takes 140-foot saucer passes to catch the world’s attention.
It might be hard for some to imagine that, given his previous accolades, Karlsson’s excellence needs to be highlighted further. For those who watch him regularly and see his critical importance to the success of the Ottawa Senators’ franchise, it’s hard to imagine how he wasn’t a finalist for the Hart Trophy this year, or most years for that matter.
Part of the issue Karlsson has always been that he doesn’t fit the mold of what hockey fans have come to expect from defencemen. The hockeyocracy likes big, burly, jar-headed boys from the Prairies who are missing teeth and who are as likely to drive an opponent into the concussion protocol as they are to fire the puck off the glass into safety.
When Karlsson was chosen at the 2008 NHL Draft, I was present at the then-Scotiabank Place, sitting at the opposite end of the arena from the stage. When Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson announced the name of their selectee, a gentleman in front of me promptly stood up, proclaimed profanely that this was a “waste of a pick,” and immediately stormed off.
As the years passed, and Karlsson accumulated more points than anyone other than Steve Stamkos in his draft class, I’ve wondered if that fan ever came around.
That’s not a given, as even in his own market, Karlsson often faces criticism for all the things that he isn’t, without nearly enough emphasis on what a unique player he is. In recent years, a narrative developed in Ottawa that suggested that Karlsson should somehow trade off some percentage of his offensive prowess to focus on defence, as though these were somehow sliders on a player profile page that he could simply nudge in either direction by a few percentage points here or there.
Again, this is an attempt to take an exceptional player, and wedge him into a role that is most familiar.
Defencemen focus on defence, by flattening the other team’s forwards, protecting the net and getting the puck out of harm’s way. Forwards look after the offence, though occasionally, defencemen can take a booming slapshot from the point to contribute to the scoring.
Because Karlsson doesn’t play like other defenders, there’s an assumption that he’s somehow a forward who is miscast on the back end. This overlooks what Karlsson does so exceptionally, and how in an age where puck possession is of greater focus, how his exceptional skillset is perfectly suited to our growing understanding of the game.
The vital skill that Karlsson has that seems to go unnoticed is his ability and willingness to keep possession of the puck until danger clears or a better opportunity presents itself. On the defensive end, this means taking pucks away from the opposition – he’s second amongst defencemen in takeaways over the past three seasons, trailing only Dustin Byfuglien - and skating it out of danger rather than simply firing it off the boards for the other team to reset in the neutral zone.
On offence, this means holding onto a puck for an extra few strides at the line rather than firing it into shinpads or dumping it down low for it to become someone else’s problem.
Added to this, Karlsson was second in the league in blocked shots this season, but accomplished this in a manner that didn’t take him out of the play. Occasionally, you’ll see Karlsson knock down passes and shots with his stick, and immediately set Ottawa back on the attack.
His approach to the game is anomalous to the extent to which it is almost better to look outside of hockey to find comparables. His ability to handle the puck in traffic amongst bigger players is most reminiscent of NBA point guards, like Steve Nash or Isaiah Thomas, while his ability to be both a playmaker and field general echoes soccer midfielders, such as Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo.
In some sense, it’s a shame that there isn’t a “midfield” in hockey, so that players like Karlsson don’t fall somewhere between either and or in the perception of fans.
This isn’t to suggest that Karlsson is somehow unknown or unappreciated around the league. But maybe he’s been taken for granted. As analysts ask how Ottawa is remaining competitive through the season and into the second round of the playoffs, more focus should be placed on how the playoff leader in minutes per game has often carried the team. Take a look around the rest of the roster, and you’ll notice how the Senators’ marginal success is flattered by Karlsson’s uncommon brilliance.
And when names of generational players like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are mentioned in the context of the most valuable players in the game, Erik Karlsson’s belongs there with them.