S trewn across the white ceiling of the San Jose Sharks’ practice facility, between canary yellow beams that shine like an homage to the California sun, are white light fixtures in the shape of giant metal-and-glass asterisks. It’s as if the roof that keeps the summer heat away from this icy haven wants to make perfectly clear that the scene playing out on the ice below is no typical affair. And the roof doesn’t lie: beneath it, a cadre of Sharks usually dispersed across Ontario by this time in the off-season is here for yet another session together in a summer that’s been unusually full of them.
It’s late July 2021, and Erik Karlsson is huddled with Mario Ferraro at one end of the rink, explaining to his young teammate the finer details of collecting the puck behind the net, navigating the opposition’s forecheck, and funnelling it back out of the defensive zone. The pandemic’s responsible for this unexpected lesson — with restrictions complicating travel plans and a host of daily details back in his usual off-season home, Karlsson and his family elected to stay in San Jose for the entire break before the 2021-22 campaign. Ferraro, then-Sharks teammate Jacob Middleton and young prospect Ozzy Wiesblatt followed suit, the group falling into a chummy summer routine of 8 a.m. coffees, Monday-to-Friday grinds in the weight room, and sessions like these in the Hall of Asterisks.
It’s a seemingly simple sequence, this breakout from the corner, but one that comes up over and over and over on game nights, passing with little notice if all goes to plan, setting potential catastrophe in motion if not. And while much of the hockey world seems to have made the assumption that Karlsson’s all-world days are behind him, the former Norris Trophy winner remains one of the sport’s best at ensuring that, in these miniscule, crucial moments, all goes to plan.
His method is pretty straightforward, Ferraro explains later. Like all great players, Karlsson maps out in-game scenarios well before they arrive, finding the pathways and the detours before he must traverse them. If that puck’s laying in the corner and the smooth-skating Swede is sprinting back to get it, forwards nipping hungrily at his heels, he’s already got his head on a swivel as he takes his first few steps. He’s clocking his options before he crosses the blue line, planning out his escape before it’s begun. Where he’s not looking, Ferraro says excitedly, is at the puck sitting in the corner — he’s spied it, it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere. He’s using his time wisely.
Karlsson’s mastered the art of expending in these moments precisely the action and effort required — no more, no less. It’s the central truth Ferraro learned about the veteran’s training philosophy during their unique off-season together, one that granted him and his teammates a closer look at how the 31-year-old — once considered the most dominant defenceman in the world — is adapting to this new chapter of his career. Gone are the trophies and historic comparisons, replaced by more skeptical looks and fewer looks overall. But that summer, Karlsson, ever the plotter, was already envisioning the comeback. He was already scheming and strategizing, already setting the wheels in motion for a season that would turn back the clock. Fast forward to this moment, heading into the home stretch of the 2021-22 campaign, and it seems he’s navigated his way out of trouble yet again. He’s looked like a man reinvented, a man who knows he still has greatness in him. Now, back from a brief injury spell, Karlsson’s continuing on that mission, his eyes fixed on redemption. And where he’s not looking is at the chorus of doubters. He’s seen them, he’s heard them, and they’re not going anywhere. He’s using his time wisely.
B eneath the affable smile, the quick quips, and the chuckle that Karlsson offers up generously, there’s a fire that burns quietly. Spend enough time around the veteran, and you’ll see it spark and flare. Middleton’s seen it plenty of times, the 26-year-old defenceman having logged hours alongside Karlsson on San Jose’s blue line. He saw it when he and Karlsson would stand in the locker room at SAP Center between periods, geared up in teal and ready to head back to the ice. There’s a phrase Middleton would return to in those moments. “I like to say, ‘Same way, Karl’ — which means, ‘We played well, let’s go out and do it again next period,’” Middleton explains. Karlsson responds, every time, with the same four words: “Same way, but better.”
Middleton and his young teammates saw Karlsson embody those four words over the off-season, saw him push for that gruelling, incremental growth as the months wore on. But the veteran of 12 NHL campaigns didn’t try to find it through a relentless onslaught in the weight room or by piling up endless hours on the ice. Much like that sprint to the corner, Karlsson’s approach is more calculated. “I think his biggest philosophy is just listening to his body,” says Middleton. “After so many years of doing it at the high level he’s done it, he’s a guy who can show up and know what he needs to do, and know what he needs to work on to still get better each and every day, without taxing his body as much as he might’ve when he was 23, 24, 25.”
In the former Ottawa Senators captain’s eyes, that approach isn’t one honed only on the ice — it’s part of a larger natural progression. “I think that’s just life in general,” Karlsson says. “You know, anyone who’s 30 years old doesn’t do what they did when they were 20 if they want to keep moving forward. … All the things that you’ve gone through and all the things that you’ve done in the past, that’s information. You get to learn, you get to know your body much better, and you start realizing what works for you and what does not. So, it’s much more comfortable now when I am a bit older, for me to do things and know why I do it, and know how I’m going to react to it and how I’m going to respond. I enjoy this stuff more now than I did, you know, when I was 20, 23 years old. … And I find that I have enjoyed, especially this off-season, trying to find new ways to maximize the body that I have right now, and trying to do what I think I need to do to get the most out of it.”
Chris Schwarz was front-and-centre for Karlsson’s early twenties in the gym. Currently the conditioning coach for the Ottawa Senators, Schwarz started in the role just after the club drafted Karlsson out of Sweden in 2008. Guiding the defenceman’s training for the first decade of his career and remaining a close friend in the years since Karlsson departed Ottawa, Schwarz has a better idea than most of what makes the six-time all-star tick — and what separates him from the pack. “Erik just sees things,” Schwarz says. “He has this athletic intelligence — he sees targets that nobody else sees. As a strength and conditioning coach, you get excited with that, because there’s so much more than just the strength component to Erik.”
For Schwarz, Karlsson is less a wild stallion with limitless, untameable ability, and more a racehorse — a creature of precise, calculated dominance. “They talk about how racehorses really know when to pull back, it’s like an innate ability, and Erik’s got a little bit of that,” Schwarz says. “He understands his body. He understands what he needs to do. It’s like somebody that needs to sing a certain number of songs and doesn’t spend too much time singing because they’re going to lose their voice. It’s a really innate ability and understanding with your body, with what you need to do, how you get yourself ready, so that you can perform.
“And Erik’s a high performer. Erik understands what a high performer is. A high performer is somebody that performs well often. Not just gives high performances every once in a while.”
It’s that sense of restraint that stood out most to strength and conditioning coach David Labentowicz when he and Karlsson trained together in 2018, during the blue-liner’s final summer as a Senator. Karlsson came by his gym looking to increase his power heading into the 2018-19 campaign, the two connecting after Labentowicz worked with Karlsson’s wife, Melinda. Having had other Ottawa pros like tireless worker Daniel Alfredsson come through his gym in the past, he was struck by how different No. 65’s approach was. How he could turn his focus on and off like a tap, betting bottles of wine on workouts and then going all-out between the whistles. “I don’t know if I should tell you this story, but I’ll tell it to you anyways,” Labentowicz says. “I asked Erik, ‘What’s the one thing that most people think is true, but is absolutely wrong?’ And he goes, ‘Dave, everyone thinks you need to work hard to be successful.’
“It’s funny, because he says it that way, but when we worked together, he worked really, really hard. But he was able to turn it off, relax afterwards — he’d go to his pool, have time with friends. So, it’s almost like a matter of perspective. He works hard in the right areas.”
I t seems Karlsson still has that knack for hitting the right areas. When surgery to fix a nagging muscle tear in his left forearm sidelined him this January, he was in the midst of the most productive campaign he’d put together in half a decade. Through the first 33 games of the season, Karlsson collected eight goals and 26 points from the back end — his most to that point in a season since 2016-17, the last year he was nominated for the Norris Trophy. The blazing start set him on pace for roughly 20 goals and 65 points by the year’s end, which would’ve been his highest totals since that last Norris-finalist season, and more than he’s posted in his last two Sharks seasons combined. Even with the injury, he’s eclipsed last year’s numbers in 21 fewer games.
“He had a really good start to the season,” San Jose head coach, Bob Boughner, says. “He was our best player many nights. You know, in the first 20, 30 games, I think that he carried us from the back end.” A former NHL defender himself, with a decade in the league playing the position under his belt, Boughner saw a change in Karlsson from the first day of training camp, that off-season of plotting and strategizing clearly having an impact. “One, you could tell he was healthy. He had a lot more jump and a lot more energy,” Boughner says. It was a key shift considering the groin injuries that hampered Karlsson’s skating ability earlier in his Sharks tenure. But for his coach, it was more than just the clean bill of health. It was the work ethic, the attitude, the mindset. “I thought that he came in with a sharper focus than I had seen in the previous couple of years,” Boughner says. “I think he wanted to prove people wrong.”
That determination was evident in Karlsson’s early play. Starting the year with a fire in his eyes, he seemed in vintage form — particularly when it came to perhaps his greatest skill: those simple sequences he’d been walking Ferraro through before the season began. “Yes, he’s offensive and yes, he can run a power play and all that, but for me, it’s his exits out of the defensive zone,” says Boughner of the most important aspect of Karlsson’s skillset. “He allows you to come out with possession, whether he’s leading the rush or coming in from behind, making a pass to the forwards at full speed, tape to tape. That’s the biggest thing about Erik’s game that helps us. How he breaks out, with full control, out of his end.”
A deeper look at the data shows just how effective Karlsson has been in that specific area this season. In the month leading up to his surgery, the rearguard ranked among the very best in the league when it came to lugging the puck to safety. According to analytics whiz Shayna Goldman, who broke down Karlsson’s game around that time for Sportsnet using data from Sportlogiq, the Sharks veteran was leading all his contemporaries when it came to carrying the puck out of his own zone at 5-on-5, doing so more than any other defender in the league. His zone exits led to successful plays 78 per cent of the time, per Goldman. And even casting a larger net to look at all the different iterations of his controlled zone-exit attempts, both his carry-outs and his passes, Karlsson still ranked among the league’s best, trailing only 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi. His ability to facilitate offence from the back end came through in more ways than just moving the puck out of his third of the ice, though. He also paced his team in passes that led directly to shots, according to Goldman — while his rate of passes to the slot led the Sharks’ defence corps and ranked among the best for any NHL defender.
Dynamic skill is nothing new for the former all-star, but Boughner’s quick to point out that this offensive revival came without Karlsson sacrificing anything significant the other way. “You know, you can’t teach what he has offensively. You can’t teach his skill,” Boughner says. “But sometimes the skilled players sort of keep a little gas in the engine for the offensive part of the game. He’s not pacing himself. He’s not just playing on one side of the puck — he’s playing on both sides of the puck. His attention to detail defensively is a lot better this year.” Goldman’s deep dive backed that story — in the month before Karlsson’s season was paused, he was forcing takeaways at the best rate of his career, and leading all Sharks defencemen in denying entries into San Jose’s zone.
“He was on pace for a terrific season statistically. And I think he’s done a good job of quieting people down,” says Boughner. “He’s still got a lot of good hockey left in him, and I think if he stays healthy, you can see what he can do. He was real healthy, he came in in great shape and you saw what he could do in the first 33 games. He’s going to have a storied career in San Jose, and it’s just going to get better for him.”
I t’s been 10 years since Karlsson first exploded onto the scene with 78 points in his third big-league season, claiming the first Norris Trophy of his career at 21 years old. Looking back on it now, he swears he was just the product of circumstance. “You know, I was a small guy, I skated really well and I was playing against guys that were 250, 240 pounds. You know, big fighters,” he says. “And I just had to learn how to adapt and still be me and coexist in a world like that.”
It wasn’t just the size discrepancy, though. In Karlsson’s eyes, it was also the game’s steady tilt towards the style of play we see on the ice now. “It was getting a little faster pace maybe, and a few more smaller guys were starting to come into the league. We were getting away a little bit more from the old-school hockey.”
That the Sens were just two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance when he arrived helped immensely, too. “We had a very veteran group and I came into an organization that had been very successful for a very long time. So, everybody that was on that team knew what they were doing,” Karlsson says. “They embraced me for who I was and the way that I play the game. And I played with some really good players. So, I think by that third season, I’d gone from being a rookie and being a young guy to kind of being ‘the guy’ for them. … Me being so young and them being so seasoned, I think that we just had a lot of fun. Their experience and my energy kind of just meshed together in a good way.”
Take Karlsson at his word and you could wind up thinking he all but stumbled into his run as the game’s best blue-liner. It wasn’t him, it was the way hockey was changing, it was the teammates on his left and right, it was everybody and everything else. But ask those who were in Ottawa at the time, and they’ll tell you the young Swede seemed like a lot more than just a kid with quick feet and loads of luck. “I remember the first time I really got to talk to him,” says Schwarz. “Erik’s always had confidence, that confidence in himself, which you could see immediately when we started to work together. [That] is always a sign that, you know, this guy’s got something special.”
It didn’t take long before Schwarz found out where that confidence came from. “We ended up going into the fieldhouse one day and we were doing 30- or 40-metre sprints — Erik was winning the races by about five meters,” he recalls. “That was when I went, ‘Oh boy, this guy’s got something physically. And he has the skillset and the mindset to be a really elite athlete.’ You could see it very early on.”
Soon came the transition from intriguing prospect to generational talent. There was no more hiding in the quiet of the Ottawa market. But Karlsson was unfazed by the ascent. “That has never really affected me in any way,” he says of the cameras, interviews and scrutiny. “I’ve always liked to have a lot of responsibilities and with responsibilities comes a lot of asks and, you know, people are pulling you in different directions. But I think that my approach to the game has never changed. It’s always been priority No. 1, and everything around it, whether it’s good or bad, hasn’t really affected the performance on the ice. And I think that I was surrounded by such a good group of people from an early age — both players and management, with the late Bryan Murray, who did a lot for me. I think that we skipped a few steps and I kind of matured a little bit sooner than I probably would have if I didn’t have those people around me.”
What stands out from the years that followed that breakout season in Ottawa are the trophies, the absurd point totals, the glory. But what actually came next for Karlsson, before he got to all that, was a year that threw everything it could at him. Just three months after he was handed the Norris Trophy, the league descended into a lockout, sapping up the first few months of his chance at a follow-up performance. He took a spin through Helsinki in the meantime, putting up a casual 34 points in 30 games for Jokerit, before the NHL’s season finally resumed in January 2013. Just 14 games into that shortened campaign, Karlsson — at this point newly crowned as the NHL’s most promising defender, and still looking the part — had the season cut out from under him yet again. It happened in a game against Pittsburgh. Karlsson and forward Matt Cooke sprinted toward the boards for a loose puck. When they arrived and got tangled up, one of Cooke’s skates slashed across the back of Karlsson’s left leg, lacerating his Achilles’ tendon, sending the defenceman to the ice as pained cries echoed around the arena.
The Senators were incensed. Nearly a decade later, it still leaves a bad taste in Karlsson’s mouth, too. “I mean, I think my first major injury was obviously — I’m not going to say ‘unfortunate,’ but very unnecessary, you know? Looking back at it now, it was a tough one to get, because I don’t think that it should have happened,” Karlsson says. “But it is what it is, you know, and it was an experience that I had to go through. I was very young at the time, and I don’t think that I really understood the magnitude of what it meant to be hurt. I just did what they told me to do, and I came in every day and did the work that I could. I was trying to get back as soon as I possibly could.”
Even then, dealing with a gruesome injury, taken out of the game just as he began to grab hold of it, Karlsson took everything in stride. After the initial rush of anger and emotion, No. 65 seemed as unmoved by the immense change of plans as he was by being thrust into the league’s spotlight. “Once I went back, I didn’t really think about it that much,” he says. “In my mind, it didn’t really affect me that much.”
The next year, he was back in the 70-point club, with his first 20-goal campaign as gravy. The year after that, his second Norris Trophy, and then another nomination after that for a ridiculous, career-best 82-point showing. In 2017, he earned a third straight Norris nomination as he willed his Senators through a lengthy playoff run, cementing his legacy in Ottawa. There was The Pass against the Bruins in Round 1, the game winner in the series clincher against the Rangers in Round 2, and a seven-game battle with the Penguins in Round 3 that saw his underdog Sens fall just one win shy of a shot in the Cup Final. In the wake of the sting of that disappointment, he faced a deeply painful period off the ice. The next year, Karlsson and Melinda suffered a devastating loss, announcing their son Axel was stillborn. Three months later, Melinda filed for a protection order against the girlfriend of Karlsson’s longtime teammate Mike Hoffman, alleging harassment directed at the Karlssons, partly related to the loss of their son.
The end of Karlsson’s run in Ottawa began to look inevitable. In September 2018, it became reality, the blue-line icon traded to San Jose in a blockbuster, eight-piece deal. And still, even coming off one of the roughest years of his life, even as he uprooted his family and left behind the only NHL home he’d ever known, Karlsson didn’t sway. “The day that he got traded, he messages me: ‘Hey, I want to come in and get an extra workout,’” Labentowicz remembers. “Despite everything going on, he used the workout to kind of clear his mind. He was joking around with me, just in a good mood. You know, just a crazy perspective. … That sort of perspective to me was actually really impressive. I don’t know how to put it — it’s like someone broke up with you, and as much as you wanted to stay together with them, you’re able to be at peace and move on.”
Karlsson acknowledges it wasn’t all roses when the news came down. But he chose to focus on the path ahead. “That was a challenging part of my life because I was so invested in my career and, you know, in my life in Ottawa. … [but] I was just happy to receive a new start,” he says. “I enjoyed it, and I stayed in the moment. I was just excited to go play hockey for the San Jose Sharks, who’ve been so successful for so long. … I learned a lot of things about myself and about the game that first year in San Jose.”
More importantly, just like that puck waiting in the corner, he knew he didn’t need to look backwards. “Ottawa is not going to go anywhere,” he says. “That’s going to be my off-season home. All of my friends are still going to be around. I’m not going to see them as much as I used to, but nothing there is going to change.” Instead, all nerves were steeled, all focus directed at getting back to playing the game he loves, back to the ice. “I mean, that’s what I’m here to do, you know? I’m here to play hockey. That’s my job. That’s my passion. And that’s the path that I’ve chosen for myself,” he says. “Wherever I’m going to be in life or whatever I’m going to do, as long as I’m playing hockey, that’s always going to be my No. 1 focus.”
T here was a time, not too long ago, when debates about the best defenceman in the game were short and sweet and nearly unanimous in Karlsson’s favour. But the conversation around the defender has taken a downturn since he left Ottawa, dwelling on the question of whether injuries and age have sapped his skill. Even his fellow players have changed their tune — in 2017-18, Karlsson’s final year in Ottawa, his NHL peers named him the most difficult defenceman in the league to play against in the annual NHLPA Player Poll. The next year, he fell to fourth in votes for the league’s best defenceman. The two years after that — these past two seasons — he fell off the list of names made public in the poll.
His own performance didn’t help matters — particularly a 2020-21 season that saw him battle through injuries and produce the worst offensive showing of his career. And so, Karlsson finds himself here — not what he once was, but maybe not what everyone believes he is either. No longer a revolutionary talent who can make those around him look obsolete, yet not as washed up as some would now assert. But 13 years into life as an NHLer, Karlsson’s learned to live with the noise — even as newer, younger talents are crowned with the titles he once held.
“There’s always going to be someone new and someone younger and someone else that people like to talk about more. That’s just the way it is,” he says “I’ve never really paid attention too much to that. You know, even from my days in Ottawa, when sometimes you got more attention than not, it’s never really affected me one way or another.”
There’s a striking conviction in Karlsson’s voice when he speaks of his indifference. You believe he’s wholly unmoved by the criticism, the underestimation, the doubt. To a certain extent, that’s surely the case. But ask his teammates — who see him not just when the lights are on but in those quiet moments away from the spotlight too, and who saw that hunger in his eyes this summer — and you get the sense there’s more to the story.
“I think it drives him for sure. But I think he’s the type of player that, he definitely cares about it but he doesn’t show it,” says Ferraro. “He doesn’t let it affect him. He stays positive and he stays confident because he knows what he’s capable of. And so do we. … It does bother him, but he doesn’t show it because that’s individual stuff and he’s a team guy. But he is motivated to be a better player every day. He is motivated to prove that he is still that player. We all know it.”
Middleton agrees, well aware of his former blue-line partner’s penchant for reaching for high bars. “To a certain extent, I think it drives him. … It goes back to the standard he holds himself to. He knows what he’s capable of and he knows what he can do night in and night out,” says Middleton. “[He’s a] two-time Norris Trophy winner. He’s been through about as much pressure as one can imagine in this game, and he’s always seemed to excel. So, no matter where he’s at in his game, I think he’s the type of player that learns to excel night in and night out.”
Schwarz, who’s known Karlsson since the defenceman’s very first moments as an NHLer, explains it isn’t that Karlsson doesn’t care about the criticism, it’s that it’s no louder than the noise in his own head — there’s no pressure greater than his own expectations for himself. “I think he’s just misunderstood,” says Schwarz. “He knows that he’s a good player. Erik’s always owned his own confidence — you can’t tell Erik that he’s not good when he knows he’s good. … I think what happens with Erik sometimes is the game is easy for Erik. The game always needs to be a challenge, and he needs to be challenged. It’s him challenging himself.”
The missing piece in all of this is Karlsson’s endgame. Why, at 31, with trophies in his case and another half-decade of hefty paycheques scheduled to come in, he’s still pushing to find new ways to get all he possibly can out of his body. “My motivation has never been to be the best in the world, or be one of the best. My motivation has always been the same, and it’s always going to be the same, and that is to win,” Karlsson says. “I want to win a Stanley Cup. I want to win more than one Stanley Cup. That’s always been what’s been driving me. And I haven’t achieved that. So, in my mind, I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’ll try and find the right way to get to where I want to go, and that’s ultimately what it is.
“So, all this other talk about what-ifs and what’s been and what can be, doesn’t really matter to me. Because my motivation, even from a young age, has always been the same. And that is to win. That’s why I play this game. That’s why I started playing this game. And that’s the way that I’ll end playing this game.”