Senators’ Erik Karlsson deserves the Norris Trophy
The number is so startling, it almost works against Erik Karlsson.
Seventy-three points? By a defenseman? By a 21-year-old defenseman? By a 6-foot, 180-pound, 21-year-old defenseman? By a 6-foot, 180-pound, 21-year-old defenseman who was minus-30 last season?
The Ottawa Senators’ sensation is tied for 10th in the NHL in scoring. He has as many points in as many games (75) as Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, a playmaking centerman who won the scoring title two years ago. He has 23 more points than the next-best defenseman, the Florida Panthers’ Brian Campbell.
But at what cost? Can you produce so much offensively without cheating defensively, especially when you’re young and small and have been porous in the past? Are you really worthy of the Norris Trophy?
Remember, the Norris is supposed to go to the defenseman who “demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.” The last three years, the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association have not selected the defenseman who led his peers in scoring. Last year, they awarded a seventh Norris to the Detroit Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom, despite his minus-2 rating.
There can be a suspicion of top offensive numbers for defensemen, if not an outright reflexive aversion to them. Reputation matters.
So where should that leave Karlsson?
“If I had a vote,” said a well-respected NHL scout, “Karlsson would be my vote.”
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Sometimes the easy answer is the right answer. Sometimes you don’t have to overthink it and act all sophisticated and stuff, worrying that you’ll look lazy if you simply state the obvious.
Karlsson has had an incredible season. He deserves the Norris Trophy.
Offense is part of all-around ability, and Karlsson has been so much better than any other defenseman this season, it should not be discounted. It should be highlighted. It should help make his case.
If Karlsson ends up leading NHL defensemen in scoring by 20 points or more, he will become only the fourth player ever to do it. Bobby Orr did it six times. Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey did it once each. That’s it.
Karlsson makes good passes. He takes hard shots. He puts pucks on net now instead of just firing them in the net’s general direction. In his third season, he has surpassed his previous career high in points by 28, and the Senators still have six games to go.
One strike against him is that he averages only 31 seconds on the penalty kill – and that’s because coach Paul MacLean tends to put him out at the end of a PK so the Sens can go back on the attack. That bothers me personally. How can you be the NHL’s best all-around defenseman if you aren’t one of your team’s main penalty-killers?
But that doesn’t mean Karlsson’s defensive game hasn’t grown, too. Though he was minus-30 last season, he is plus-14 this season – a plus-44 improvement. He averages 25:14 of ice time and plays against the other teams’ top lines at even strength with partner Filip Kuba, a veteran, steadying influence.
“I think the experience is probably the main thing,” Karlsson said. “Just being able to play more games and develop all the time has probably made me a better hockey player, and hopefully I’ll keep doing that.”
At his size, Karlsson isn’t going to win many physical battles. He isn’t going to outmuscle somebody like Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic, a 6-4, 220-pound brute. But there are other ways to be effective defensively.
A couple of years ago, Senators general manager Bryan Murray sort of kidded Karlsson that he should play defense the way women do – get into the hands of the attacking player instead of trying to hit him (or her).
Well, Karlsson took it to heart. He improved his strength, balance and positioning. He figured out how to direct opponents away from dangerous areas. He started deflecting and stealing pucks. He leads NHL defensemen in takeaways with 60.
“I think he does that extremely well,” Murray said. “Now he doesn’t try to knock Lucic down, but he gets into a position where he takes the puck away from the guy in one manner or another. I think those are the things that smart, young players learn and then become successful in this league.”
Karlsson always has had speed and quickness, but now he makes better use of those assets. Not only does he win races to the puck, but he makes good decisions when he does, transitioning to offense by carrying the puck himself or making a crisp first pass.
“Being not a heavy and a big guy, he uses his balance and his reach incredibly well in our own end,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “Once he gets the puck, he’s three steps and … I mean, he’s gone.
“He can beat the first few forecheckers. It makes life for us forwards so much easier. He makes a lot of small plays in our own end that dissolve the other team’s forecheck and makes us go on the offense. You can’t see that in the stats.”
Our anonymous NHL scout echoed that.
“He gets to loose pucks, one pass, boom – the puck’s going the other way,” said the scout, who declined to be identified because he was talking about a player from another team. “To me, that’s the best defense that you can have. You get the puck and then the other team doesn’t have it. Karlsson is excellent – absolutely excellent – at that.”
The scout estimated that Karlsson averaged four or five defensive lapses per game last season – a turnover or missed coverage that resulted in a scoring chance against. This season? He has cut that down to about one.
“He doesn’t make near as many mistakes,” the scout said. “He doesn’t try as many high-risk plays.”
And his improvement isn’t so great simply because the bar was so low.
Karlsson’s defensive game is legit enough that it puts his all-around game at a Norris level when combined with his immense offensive output. His performance is a main reason why the Senators – who finished 26th last season and were picked to finish as low as 30th this season – have been one of the biggest surprises of the season. The Sens are seventh in the Eastern Conference, going into Monday’s game with the Jets, and fighting to hold onto a playoff spot.
“The comments I hear or read quite often are unfortunately that he’s not real good defensively, when in fact he’s become real good defensively,” Murray said. “We think he’s a top-end defensive guy as well as a point-getter. …
“What happens in our league, we label a player, and it takes him quite some time to get rid of that label. He was labeled in his first year, and rightly so, as a liability defensively. But that label should now disappear just watching our team and the impact he’s had.”
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About a week ago, a group of hockey people were sitting around talking about the NHL’s best defensemen. Lidstrom and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara both had started strong but faded a bit. The Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber and Ryan Suter had been the best pair, but that made it harder for one to stand out. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang looked great when he was in the lineup.
“Letang’s going to win it,” our scout said. “He’ll win one, one day. He just needs to stay healthy.”
In the end, the group talked about how much Karlsson has improved and how well he has played, and those folks weren’t part of the Ottawa organization. They didn’t even consider how Karlsson has been in the room – his energy, his enthusiasm, his sense of humor, the amount of respect he receives from his teammates already.
“He handles himself extremely well,” Alfredsson said. “He’s very mature for his age. He’s just a fun person to be around. If he would have worked in a warehouse somewhere or been a carpenter, everybody would have loved to work with him.”
At an age when most defensemen are just building foundations for their careers, Karlsson looks like he’s putting the finishing touches on a Norris Trophy season – his first Norris Trophy season. One day, he might need a warehouse for all his hardware.
Karlsson would be the second-youngest to win the Norris. Orr won his first at age 20 in 1968 and ended up with eight. Reputation matters.
“I mean, even if you reach a goal, you’re always setting a new one,” Karlsson said. “There’s still a lot of things to reach up to.”