When the Ottawa Senators host the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, they will do so as one of two teams that has taken at least a point from every game they have played so far, now two weeks into the season.
Not bad for a team that was supposed to decompose into matter without Erik Karlsson.
No, for all our concern, the Senators very much survived in life without their world-class motor. Instead of being behind the eight-ball, the Senators spotted Karlsson eight points from five games – or important leeway while he adjusts to life with “half (an) ankle bone”.
No need to break out the cape, at least not immediately.
But while the Senators surprised by not missing Karlsson like we expected they would, the sport sure did. So to celebrate his return (to what hopefully will continue to be a wide-open NHL), here’s a refresher on all things that make him the very best at his position.
Elite quarterback play
Whether it’s short check downs at the top of the umbrella or taking the top off the defence from behind his own goal line, no one routinely puts his teammates in better positions to score than Ottawa’s No. 1 defenseman.
The super rover has counted 165 assists over the last three seasons, which ranks second only to the Washington Capitals’ Niklas Backstrom. What’s more, Karlsson is driving a team that despite his influence still ranks in the bottom half of the league in terms of total goals and he hasn’t had a single 30-goal scorer to rely on to rack up his points over that same three-year stretch.
Personnel doesn’t dictate his distribution. He makes everyone around him a legitimate threat to finish.
Recognition of when and where to activate is the mark of successful two-way defenders in the NHL. The great ones pick their spots with tremendous accuracy. The best have the talent to constantly push the boundary.
Because of his tremendous closing speed, efficiency with his movements, puck skills and anticipation, Karlsson can afford to be one of the game’s most aggressive defenders in his efforts to both kick-start and enhance the Ottawa attack.
There are few situations more exciting than seeing Karlsson dash through center ice when the Senators commit numbers up ice.
In sports, repeated habits – especially ones easy to quantify – are typically what’s celebrated. That’s why we have always gushed over Karlsson’s offensive numbers and took notice last season when he was all of the sudden threatening to lead the league in blocked shots. (Perhaps it’s why Brent Burns was voted the Norris Trophy winner ahead of Karlsson last year, too.)
But when he’s called upon to narrow his focus and prioritize his own end, Karlsson can defend with the best of them in the NHL. What he gives up in size he makes up for with speed and positioning. This allows him to close down shooting and passing lanes, disrupt passes, win puck battles, thwart forecheckers, and, when everything’s aligned perfectly, deliver the perfect open-ice hit.
In the scrum
While Karlsson wasn’t confined to the trainer’s table while he nursed his injured ankle, he’s much more entertaining when not limited to answering questions about his health status and pending return.
Karlsson’s candour when talking about issues like the Olympics, or 3-on-3 overtime, or the players’ share in terms of league dynamics (or even when he shows some snark when it’s plain as day that he doesn’t want to be doing this pointless pre-game interview) always makes for quality viewing.