NASHVILLE – Erik Karlsson laughs when he thinks about attending the Stanley Cup party thrown by close friend and former teammate Mark Stone later this summer. Because laughter is better than the alternative.
“I’m gonna go to Stoney’s Cup party and not touch the Cup and be like, ‘(Expletive)! Thanks for reminding me. I’m happy for you. But damn it,’” Karlsson says with a chuckle inside the bowels of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena Sunday afternoon.
The 33-year-old San Jose Sharks superstar is hot off the most productive offensive season by a defenceman in 31 years (101 points). Barring a shocking upset, he’ll take home his third Norris Trophy here Monday night at the NHL Awards. He’s up for the Ted Lindsay Award, too.
To think: Karlsson could win a Norris and be traded in the same week.
In fact, that’s what he’d love to happen.
“I think there’s a lot of teams that want to do it. Not necessarily a lot of teams that can do it,” says Karlsson, who holds a full no-move clause and is working with the Sharks and potential trade partners.
“I’m not looking to be greedy. I’m not looking to do what’s best for me personally. I want it professionally to be a good situation. That’s what I’m going to base my decision off, and I hope that obviously, sooner or later, we can figure out what those options are.”
Peer respect, individual trophies, millions of dollars in the bank, beautiful wife and kids, a boatload of redemption when it once appeared foot injuries may have got the best of him — Karlsson has it all.
Except the ultimate team success.
The closest Karlsson came to that was with Stone and the 2017 Ottawa Senators, who pushed the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the limit in the Eastern Conference final.
Karlsson got the payday Ottawa wouldn’t give him in San Jose but has now missed out on the postseason four years running, and new GM Mike Grier is entrenched in rebuild mode.
San Jose will eat some percentage of Karlsson’s remaining cap hit — four more years at $11.5 million — but orchestrating such a megadeal to a cap-tight contending team is complicated. There’s a reason Karlsson wasn’t dealt at the trade deadline. That the salary cap is only raising $1 million for 2023-24 doesn’t ease the situation.
There is a willingness to find Karlsson a new home, though.
“I’m the best when you need to be the best. But if I don’t have the chance to get to the place where you need to play the big games, then I might as well not do it. I could go through 82 games a year and be good, but I want to play when it matters,” Karlsson said.
“In the stage of my career, that’s what I’m looking for. And there’s no particular team [in mind]. Whenever it comes down to it, I’m gonna look at all the teams and be like: ‘I think this is the winning team.’ That’s not to say we’re going to win, but I think this is where I can have the most impact.”
In dominating the regular season, a rejuvenated Karlsson proved to himself and the hockey world that, indeed, he is an $11.5-million player. Healing helps. And, although he labels it “circumstantial stuff,” having Brent Burns thrive over in Carolina helped Karlsson own the puck, too.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” Karlsson said.
“Unfortunately, it took a long time to get back to that level that I knew I had in me. It’s not that it ever went away. But I do think that where I’m at right now in my life, and what I want to accomplish, I think that the sky’s the limit. I don’t think that I’ve had the best year of my life just yet.”
Maybe that’s a sales pitch to the other 31 general managers about to descend on Music City and begin forming their rosters for the fall. But Karlsson is not one to be doubted.
And he wants to make it clear there is zero animosity for wanting out. He loves off-ice life in Silicon Valley, steep California taxes and all, and his communication with Grier has been open since Day One.
“He’s a very bright guy, and I think he’s doing the right thing for San Jose. Like, I love it. I wish I was 10 years younger, and I could be part of it. Because I think that’s how good they are, with the coaching staff and everybody that they put in place. But reality is, I’m not at that stage,” Karlsson explained.
“Would it be nice to get [the trade] done tomorrow? Yeah, of course. I have a family of four. We have a house in San Jose. It’ll be way more smoother if it gets done earlier.
“But at the same time, it’s not like I’m unhappy in San Jose. I like it. My family likes it. That’s where our kids were born. We’re well situated. Jumbo’s back. We’re good friends with him and his family. Patty’s back. We’re good friends. We’re fine there.
“The decision, I hope, whenever it gets done, it’s going to be the right one. And however long that takes, it’s going to take. I hope that San Jose gets what they want.
“I want everybody to be happy. That’s the bottom line.”
Karlsson’s desire for a championship was fueled this spring by binge-watching the playoffs, NHL and NBA.
He’s always prided himself on his ability to disconnect from work after shedding his equipment, to focus on family, friends and hobbies. But as he’s gotten older, Karlsson finds himself glued to the TV come playoff time.
“It’s been giving me a good understanding the last couple of years of what you have to do when the time really comes down to perform. And that’s what I want to do. And I think that throughout my career that’s where I thrive off,” Karlsson said.
“Basketball, too. Like, I don’t know basketball. I never played basketball growing up. But I enjoy watching it just for guys showing up when they need show up — which is what it’s all about.”
And that brings Karlsson back to Stone and the Cup and the meaning of playing team sports in the first place.
“I mean, me and Mark Stone are good friends from way back in the day. We played together. I love the guy. I always knew he was going to be great. So, for him and Vegas to win, I think the way that they did it and how they conducted themselves, which is not particularly normal in our circle, I think is awesome. You know, they went for it. They (expletive) won. And they’re good,” Karlsson said.
“Jack Eichel — never been in the playoffs. He’s a good player, and he (expletive) showed up when you need to show up. Mark Stone didn’t play all year. I had dinner with him in March, and the guy can barely walk. I was like, ‘How are you gonna play? He’s like, ‘I’ll be fine. Four weeks from now, I’ll be fine.’ And then he’s playing in the playoffs. He’s fine.
“That just shows that’s what you need. And I knew that from Mark from when he came in, in Ottawa, being a rookie. I could tell he’s a winner.
“For me now, in this stage of my career, that’s what I’m looking for.”