Erik Karlsson has sat atop the NHL’s defensive food chain for multiple years now and the 2017 NHL playoffs are not the first instance of his brilliance. Rather, this year’s playoffs have acted as a magnifying glass to show off Karlsson’s raw and dynamic talent. Karlsson should be considered a top-three player in the NHL, and this year’s playoffs is the perfect opportunity for the hockey world to realize this fact.
Gone are, or should be, the days of the old school mentality that in order to be a good defenseman, you need to block shots and be anchored down in the defensive zone. Karlsson is the quintessential model of the break in this trend. Ottawa’s run to the Eastern Conference Final has finally pitted a spotlight on Karlsson and his genius as a defender, and furthermore has augmented the fact that he should be considered amongst the league’s best with Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.
Erik Karlsson has notoriously been regarded as a poor defensive player by the media. He does not play the stereotypical role of a defenseman who blocks shots and lays the body on his opponents. Instead, Karlsson uses his stick and speed to strip the puck from the players he is defending in order to transition the play in the reverse direction.
Karlsson is not the Norris Trophy winner that Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, and Zdeno Chara were. He is a new, hybrid breed of a defenseman. He exemplifies all the NHL has become over the past half a decade — quick and smart. Defenseman who stay trapped in their own end were once regarded as heroes and the best in the league. But now, those players, such as Dan Girardi, Brooks Orpik, and Kris Russell, now carry a stigma with them. The ideology has shifted from “good defensively” to “poor analytically”. Karlsson’s game is the new best in the NHL and he himself is the best at doing it. He was once regarded as an inadequate defenseman because people never saw him playing defense. He rarely has to even skate backwards. Karlsson’s game had evolved five years before the rest of the NHL followed suit, and everyone is now just catching on.
Karlsson has been as good as it gets for the past three years and beyond. As the classic HERO Chart from Own the Puck shows, Karlsson is at the top of his game in virtually every category:
His ice time skyrockets to absurd numbers, so the data is not a result of a small sample size. This past regular season, Karlsson averaged 26:50 time on ice per game. This was only behind three players, those being Dustin Byfuglien, Drew Doughty, and Ryan Suter. Oh, and Karlsson outscored the nearest of those three (Byfuglien) by 19 points in three less games.
Karlsson is averaging over two full minutes more of ice time in the playoffs. In the 13 games that the Senators have played, Karlsson has an average time on ice of 29:04. He is out there for every other shift and for half the game in some instances. It is a feat of human endurance that is rarely seen in the game today. Along with this, just to show how preposterous this whole situation is, Karlsson has two hairline fractures in his foot. Karlsson mentioned this himself after Round One, which is rare given the NHL’s unwritten injury protocol. Even if he were to usually mentioned something, it would have likely been limited to a “lower-body injury”.
“It’s something that’s done with. I just felt like getting it out of the way instead of having it keep lingering on,” Karlsson said. “I’m not much for secrets.”
Karlsson’s admittance to the injury is a refreshing change to the usual ambiguity of the league today, even if it was just to clear the air with the media. It also makes watching what Karlsson is doing on the ice even more spectacular. He’s still the fastest and most agile guy out there on any given night despite the injury.
The brilliance of Erik Karlsson this season also comes in an odd scenario, that being with Guy Boucher as coach. There was a lot of speculation prior to the season as to how Boucher and Karlsson would mix, but so far it has worked out to perfection. Boucher, a noted trap-playing and defensive-oriented coach, lets Karlsson play to his ability and freely. Karlsson is not bound to any constraints or to any system under Boucher. It is a symbiotic relationship that has provided considerable benefits for both coach and player.
Boucher has a clear admiration for Karlsson and the way he plays. He publicly praises Karlsson on the regular, especially towards the end of the season when he was dealing with a multitude of injuries.
“To see where this guy is right now, to see him this year throughout the year, he has put the building blocks one on top of the other to become the player he is now and the man that he is now. I’m really fortunate to have lived it and seen it. Everybody benefits from it,” Boucher told The National Post.
Karlsson’s run in the 2017 playoffs has truly proven to the hockey world that he should not only be considered among the best in the world, but the elite. Karlsson needs to be considered as a person who sits atop the food chain of the NHL with Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. No three players are more dominant at what they do in the game than these three men.
When it is all said and done, Erik Karlsson will be looked back on as a revolutionary for the game. His model of play has already paved the way for many defensemen who have entered the league after him, and it will continue to be a prime example for those moving forward. Being able to watch Karlsson in his prime is a privilege that should be marveled in and not skewed by a preconceived and old-school media bias.
It is hard to believe it took this long, but Erik Karlsson is finally getting the praise he deserves. Let’s not let that notion change anytime soon.