DENVER – The stride is starting to look almost as good as the payday will.
Make no mistake, Erik Karlsson’s focus throughout his long, uncomfortable battle back from a groin injury has nothing to do with whether he’ll make $10 or $11 million annually on the open market this summer.
It’s about the Cup he fell so agonizingly short of two years ago as captain of the Ottawa Senators.
However, for the short list of potential suitors wondering if and how much they’ll be willing to pony up this summer for the two-time Norris Trophy winner, his play at the most important time of the year matters.
His 10 assists in 10 games is a testament to his skill and fortitude, as he sits just two points off the playoff scoring lead despite a first-round stride that spoke to the five weeks he missed at the end of the season.
And while the hockey world loves to talk about where he’ll hang his hat next, the 28-year-old Swede scoffed when asked how he manages to keep those thoughts at bay.
"It’s easy – I’ve been able to do that all year," said Karlsson, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"I know what I am and what I bring and what I can do, and for me to do that and show that the rest will take care of itself, no matter what happens."
He knows a Stanley Cup ring won’t hurt his market value, which is only part of the reason why his daily focus is squarely on his next game.
After all, there are questions as to whether he is as dominant a player as he once was.
"I know what I can get better at – I strive to do that," said Karlsson, who turned the San Jose Sharks into an instant pre-season Cup favourite when acquired from Ottawa.
"From the 10 years in the league I’ve been improving from Day 1. I think I’m better now than I was any point in my career previously. I’m just going to keep going that way. I feel like I still have a lot left to give."
That has been increasingly evident in a series in which it’s generally agreed on he’s skating better than he did against Vegas in Round 1.
"Yeah, it feels pretty good," said Karlsson of the nagging injury that had clearly affected one of his most prized gifts.
"Obviously, I had some ups and downs but I think that goes for everybody who’s at this position. Everyone is dealing with something. You just have to find a way around it and make the most out of it. The previous two games I felt better and better. I hope for that to just continue."
Coach Peter DeBoer has generally used Karlsson upwards of 22 minutes a night, but wasn’t scared to have him out there for more than 33 minutes in each of the last two overtime games against Vegas.
"I think he’s finally starting to look like he did in January and February when he was 100 per cent healthy," said DeBoer.
"You can’t rush those type of things. His first game was the last game of the regular season so we knew there’d be some adjustment period, some conditioning, some timing. We’re through that and out the other side. And he looks good."
One of the questions Karlsson did a good job answering this season revolved around how he’d mesh with an offensive star on the back end like Brent Burns. While there were early growing pains, the fit has clearly evolved into good one. That’s comforting to interested GMs out there who already have a stud or two on the back end.
"It’s been a privilege to play with him," said Karlsson of Burns, who had led all defencemen with 83 points while Karlsson had 45 points in 53 games.
"The things he sees and the way he thinks the game, we’ve been trying to help each other out as much as we can, make each other better and make this team better.
"Throughout the course of the year it has been going great.
"We’ve had great chemistry. It hasn’t been a clash at all about who is going to play what and where. We’re both professional so we know when someone is playing a little bit better than the other."
Of course, one of the options Karlsson may choose to exercise is remaining with the Sharks, should they somehow find a way to squeeze him under their salary cap.
A Stanley Cup win might sway him in that direction – a theory he’s likely intrigued to test out.