Every year, the NHL awards its most valuable player as deemed by the media with the Hart Trophy. The Hart is quite arguable most the prestigious individual award that a player can attain, and so far it is none other than Erik Karlsson who deserves to be the favorite to lay claim to it in June.
In the early portion of the 2015-2016 season, the hockey world has been amazed by Patrick Kane’s astounding point production. Articles from hockey experts that aim to break down who should be the front runners for the individual awards have almost unanimously declared that Kane should be the runaway favorite to take home the honor in June. That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion for one to arrive at, though I personally don’t agree with it.
What Karlsson has been doing in Ottawa for the first 27 games of their season is just flat out better, more impressive, and more valuable than what Kane has being doing in Chicago. And I say that with full knowledge of just how incredible Kane has been over his current 23-game point streak. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers behind just how outstanding Karlsson has been for the team that calls Canada’s capital home.
There isn’t a single defenseman in hockey who does more than what Karlsson does on the ice. This is inarguable. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Karlsson leads all defensemen in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes with a mark of 1.62. The only other player with more than 1.50 is Dallas phenom and fellow Swede John Klingberg. Karlsson already has 15 even-strength points on the year, and he is showing no signs of slowing down.
On the power play, things are not much different. Karlsson trails only Klingberg league-wide with 12 power play points accumulated already. In terms of raw point totals, Karlsson’s 32 points in 28 games represent a truly astonishing number. That puts him fourth among every single skater in points, and he trails only Kane, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin. In terms of assists, nobody has more than Karlsson does. Kane is tied.
This is a defenseman we’re talking about. Of course with Karlsson, there will always be the detractors who make the assumption that with such outstanding offensive production there must come a sacrifice of quality of play in his own end. This has been debunked on numerous occasions throughout the years, but it’s fully worth debunking again this time around too.
The thing that not many people seem to be acknowledging about the Senators right now is that they really are not a good hockey team at all. Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy alluded to this today in an article in which he also briefly argued that Karlsson should be the Hart favorite, and he’s absolutely right. The Senators, despite their record, are not playing overly strong hockey as a team.
Here are some of the Senators league-wide defensive metric rankings at 5-on-5 as per war-on-ice.com. They give up more corsi events (60.3 per 60) than any other team. When it comes to surrendering shots on goal (32.3 per 60), they are again 30th. They give up the 28th most scoring chances (28.6). When you break it down to only high-danger scoring chances, they are again 28th (11.9). You’ll note that all of that is rather bad.
All of that is to say that the Senators are a bad defensive team. They’re a truly terrible one, in fact. Part of that is because of an ill-conceived system, and another part of it is because their defensive unit is just poor. However, none of that is through any fault of Karlsson’s.
Those numbers above include Karlsson’s Herculean contributions, but here are the same numbers for the Senators looking only at when Karlsson is on the ice. The corsi against number drops from 60.3 to 55.3. In fact, Ottawa’s rocking a CF% of 51.2% with Karlsson on the ice and 42.4% (!!!) without him. That’s a corsi relative of +8.8%. The shots on goal against dip from 32.3 to 30.1 when Karlsson is present. Scoring chances against go from 28.6 to 27.4. High-danger chances against are unchanged at 11.9, however Karlsson’s offensive talents generate a HDSCF% of 49.6% compared to, again, 42.4% for the Senators without him. Keep in mind that Karlsson plays more minutes than practically every defenseman in the NHL and sees every team’s top offensive threats every night, while his teammates lower on the depth chart see their stats boosted by facing, well, not the other team’s top threats.
It’s almost unbelievable how much of an impact Karlsson’s on-ice presence has on the Senators. Without him, they are quite literally a statistically worse team than last season’s 68-point train wreck of a Toronto Maple Leafs team. The Senators are a very strong 15-8-5 so far this year, but I shudder to think what that record could quickly begin to look like without their captain.
I have little doubts that Karlsson will continue to drag his team’s underlying numbers kicking and screaming toward near-respectability. If he is able to maintain his torrid point-production pace and remain in the top five (or even top ten) of the league in scoring, then he will absolutely be deserving of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. He’s been handsomely rewarded for his efforts over the years with two Norris Trophy wins as the league’s top defenseman, but 2015-2016 could finally be the year that Karlsson transcends his position and gains notoriety as one of the three or so best hockey players in the world.