At the tender age of 25, Erik Karlsson has already put himself easily in the conversation for the top defenseman in the Senators’ history. But is he the best? Numero uno. Top of the line. First place. With due respect to the other defensemen of the past, there are three main alternatives.
Many fans still rue the day the Senators let Zdeno Chara leave to the Boston Bruins in free agency after the 2005-06 season. A 6’9″ mammoth of a player, Chara is well respected as someone who keeps himself in great physical shape. Finally at the age of 37, he showed signs of losing a step last season. Chara was just coming into his own with the Senators, and most of his fame has come as a member of the Bruins.
Still, Chara was one of the best to suit up with Ottawa. In 2003-04, Chara made the NHL’s first all-star team and finished second to Scott Niedermayer in Norris Trophy voting. Chara made a name for himself by being physically punishing on defense, but able to chip in offensively with his booming shot from the point. He is also occasionally used to screen the opposition’s goalie on the powerplay. He has finished in the top three for the Norris Trophy six times in his career and won it with Boston in 2008-09.
In 209 games with the Senators, Chara had 51 goals, 95 assists, 146 points, a +109 rating and 554 PIM.
Oh, and he made Bryan McCabe into a human rag doll.
The man that the Senators kept instead of Chara, Redden had a longer stint with the Senators but not as impressive of a career impact. Also leaving in free agency to sign a big contract with the New York Rangers, Redden was classified as an offensive defenseman. His career went downhill in a hurry after leaving Ottawa, and he was soon forgotten as a premier defenseman and only talked about when formulating the lists of the worst contracts.
Redden was never supposed to be a Senator, but a contract dispute with number one pick Bryan Berard left the Senators to trade with the Islanders to swap the top two picks before they had even played a game (with some other pieces included to even things out).
In his 11 seasons with the Senators, Redden had his lone top five Norris season come in 2005-06 when he finished fifth in voting after a 50 point season. Redden also leads all Senators’ defensemen in points (410), assists (309), goals (101), plus/minus (159, leads all skaters), and shots (1550). He suited up for 838 games for Ottawa.
Phillips is the ‘lifer’ on the Senators at this point. Every single one of his games has been played with the Senators jersey on his back after being selected first overall by the team in the 1996 draft. The opposite of Redden, the career high for Phillips is 26 points, and he’s been tasked with shutting down the top players of the opposition. He has no top 10 Norris finishes, and while he is considered a disappointment based on the bar set by other number one picks, but he has been a steady and reliable player over his career.
In his 1179 career games (first in Senators history), Phillips has 71 goals, 217 assists, 288 points, a +67 rating and 758 PIM.
Unfortunately for Phillips and Senators fans, he is most remembered for scoring the eventual Stanley Cup winning goal… into his own net.
The Case for Karlsson
Karlsson doesn’t have the track record of some of the players on this list, especially Redden and Phillips. Despite this, he has already nearly matched them in production. Karlsson has virtually played in five seasons, as one year was lost (except for 17 games) due to his Achilles injury following a hit from Matt Cooke. He won his second Norris trophy this season, so that already puts him two ahead of anyone else if we just look at their time with Ottawa. Karlsson has scored 84 goals, 219 assists, and 303 points, placing him second to only Redden among defensemen in each of those categories.
There are two main ways to assess career rankings. The first is to look at the entire body of the work. Who had the longest impact? The edge in this case would go to Redden. He still does lead Karlsson in all the scoring categories, and since they were both offense-first players, we can compare them fairly straight across. Redden compiled his stats over a much longer time frame, but we’re looking at longevity, so that is irrelevant. Phillips would be the longevity king, but he wasn’t ever a star or considered among the best in the league.
The second way is to examine the players’ peaks. In this case, Karlsson takes the title quite easily. His two Norris trophies are the only individual hardware that anyone in this article has, and the leader in goals, assists and points per game when used as a rate stat. Phillips has been consistent, but his peak wasn’t anything phenomenal. Chara, again, saw much of his peak come while he was wearing Boston black and gold. Redden’s peak was good, but not the level that we’ve seen from Karlsson.
The other measuring stick to consider is team success. Did the player vault his team to the playoffs, or better yet, a championship? Karlsson has been to the playoffs four times, though the farthest he made it was the second round. Redden and Phillips both made it to the finals in 2006-07, and the two made it to the conference finals along with Chara in 2002-03. During their times in Ottawa, the Senators made the playoffs every year, so they have an edge on Karlsson in this aspect so far, though they never won a championship.
The conclusion is that I’d label Karlsson as already the best defenseman in Senators’ history, which is pretty incredible considering he is only 24 years old and a six year veteran. If Karlsson can win a Stanley Cup in Ottawa and continue his career trajectory over the next few years, he could be seen as (dare I say it), the greatest Senator of modern memory. It will take awhile to usurp Daniel Alfredsson, but if anyone can do it, I’d bet on Mr. Karlsson.