Sharks’ Karlsson returns to Ottawa mired in unexpected mediocrity

San Jose Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson. (Tony Avelar/CP/AP)

TORONTO — Without words, actions.

A small group of reporters waited for Erik Karlsson in a cleared-out visitors room after the San Jose Sharks’ 5-3 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night, the club’s third straight loss and a slump they could begin to climb out of with a win in Ottawa Saturday.

Circle the date. Pop some corn.

Once Karlsson’s return was mentioned by a member of the media, the star defenceman turned and walked away. Scrum over, before it started. (A Sharks spokesperson said afterwards that Karlsson is planning a press conference in Ottawa later this week.)

In addition to a swirl of emotions, Karlsson will carry an uncharacteristically decent stat line to the city he called “my forever home” on the day the Senators traded its captain, its quarterback and his expiring contract away to California.

Karlsson’s two goals and 15 points through 26 games are good for 15th-overall in defencemen scoring, but by the two-time Norris winner’s standards, it’s an underwhelming start in teal. Underscoring EK65’s complicated move is that the most productive NHL defenceman is Ottawa’s 21-year-old super sophomore, Thomas Chabot (29 points).

“You can’t hide from the fact it’s a big game,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said pre-game. “He’s handling it well. He’s concentrating on the moment.

“We can deal with the Ottawa thing when it comes. There’s no doubt it’s a big moment for any player that’s spent that kinda time and has that kind of legacy there.”

Nine seasons, 627 games, 518 points, and one overtime goal away from a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. A wife, a home, a charity, a legal dispute with an ex-teammate, a messy and agonizing trade.

“Even though I’m not going to represent this hockey club anymore, it’s always going to be my home and a community I’m going to be involved in as much as I can and give back in whatever way I can,” said Karlsson, fighting back tears on the day Doug Wilson cobbled together enough pieces to land him.

“I never wanted to leave this place.”

On paper, with the one-two (Chuck?) Norris punch of Karlsson and Brent Burns eating up about 24 minutes apiece on a nightly basis and gold medallist like Marc-Edouard Vlasic stuffed on the third pairing, San Jose’s defence was supposed to be among the elite.

Yet the Sharks have surrendered 3.08 goals per game (18th overall) and have a negative goal differential.

“We’re giving up too many easy goals. Breakaways, empty nets, odd-man rushes—same old story,” said centre Logan Couture, who questions if his team ranks among the contenders.

“My personal opinion, I don’t think we’re close. But we show spurts and signs that we’re capable of it. But we haven’t put together an effort against a top-quality team [except for beating Nashville]. That may be it. We’ve got to figure it out soon.”

The notion that Karlsson and his new surrounding roster still need time to adjust to each other? DeBoer isn’t buying it.

“That’s well in the rear-view mirror here,” his coach said. “He’s been one of our best players almost every night the past two, three weeks.”

Couture does admit that it took the forwards a few games to get a read off Karlsson.

“There were times where guys weren’t ready for his first passes just because we’re not used to playing with someone like that,” said Couture, noting Karlsson’s knack for creating offence. “He thinks the game at a higher IQ than most players. That’s what superstars do.”

Addressing reporters in Buffalo Monday, Karlsson predicted Saturday’s matinee at Canadian Tire Centre would feel “fun, different, weird” and “special.”

Karlsson watched his mentor and best man, Daniel Alfredsson, ride a similar wave of emotions when he spent Dec. 1, 2013 with him leading up to Alfie’s return to Ottawa in that ill-fitting Red Wings uniform.

Karlsson is more than a quarter deep into a critical contract year. Questions about his ability, his health, his fit, and his future won’t disappear no matter where the schedule flies him.

The Sharks are all-in during these last days of Joe Thornton. The pressures, both individual and teamwide, don’t need to be verbalized to be felt. Players have recently pointed to breakdowns in structure and competitiveness as flaws in need of correction.

When things don’t go as planned, emotions can get raw.

After another tough loss against a quality opponent Wednesday, Couture was asked, in general terms, if he believes it takes a while for a hockey team to gel with new personnel after off-season changes.

“I’m a believer that it takes time. I’m a believer that it doesn’t take 26 games,” Couture said.

“So, we need to figure it out.”

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