Karlsson Proving He’s NHL’s Best Defenceman

Erik Karlsson has officially put the NHL on notice.

“It’s Erik Karlsson’s world and we’re all just living in it,” an Ottawa Senators blogger by the name of Bonk’s Mullet so eloquently noted on Twitter. It’s easy to see why Karlsson’s play would warrant such a reaction, with five points in four postseason games on the back of some awe-inspiring displays of tremendous skill.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Erik Karlsson is tied for the lead in playoff points among defencemen with five (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

In a way, it’s a shame it’s taken until the playoffs – i.e. the post-award voting period – for the rest of the league to see just how dominant he is because it would have made the Norris Trophy voting no contest. But even if he doesn’t get that recognition from the voters, he’s let his play announce to the league what many already knew – that he is the best defenceman in the league today.

Burning the Bruins

Through the first four games of Ottawa’s first-round series with the Boston Bruins, Karlsson has been a human highlight reel and practically singlehandedly led his team to a 3-1 series lead. With five points, Karlsson has been involved in 50 per cent of the Senators’ goals and has made the Bruins look foolish in a number of instances.

Exhibit A: Bait and Hook

Fresh off berating Brassard only a period earlier, and with a one-goal deficit midway through the third period, Karlsson worked his magic. He pickpocketed Riley Nash along the half wall, curled over to his off wing while deking around two Bruins and toeing the line – drawing four Boston players to his side of the ice in the process – before throwing a ridiculous cross-ice pass to a wide-open Brassard who knotted Game 2 at three apiece.

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We’ve seen examples of Karlsson’s tremendous stickhandling before, just as we’ve seen how great he can be at stripping his opponents of the puck. But to combine both and put everything together in such a gorgeous little five-second package is just astounding – and that the play also helped the Sens go on to win Game 2 makes it all the more significant.

Exhibit B: Taking Over

Karlsson likely hasn’t been at full health this postseason – let that sink in – but that hasn’t stopped him from asserting his dominance as he did on the aforementioned play or, on a more macro level, in the entirety of Game 3. Normally it’s just one play in which Karlsson shows off his great stick work, patience, etc., but in this game Karlsson had it going on three different plays.

The first, and arguably best play of the postseason, came in the first period when Karlsson launched a saucer pass the length of the ice that landed perfectly on the stick of Mike Hoffman at Boston’s blue line. For good measure, Hoffman followed up the magnificent pass with a deke of equal magnificence, pulling a Peter Forsberg-esque move to beat Tuukka Rask.

Then, only seconds later, Karlsson showed off his silky-smooth hands in the offensive zone to avoid a defending Bruin, before sending the puck down low to Viktor Stalberg. Despite doing much of the ground to set up the eventual goal – a pretty tic-tac-toe between Stalberg, Bobby Ryan and Brassard – Karlsson came away without a point.

And for good measure, he rushed the puck up ice in overtime and hit Ryan with a perfect pass as he entered the zone, working a give-and-go with Kyle Turris to set up the game-winner. Controversy aside – many Bruins fans were unhappy with the penalty call on Nash that allowed for the OT winner – the goal was a perfect cap on what was an incredible game for Karlsson.

Exhibit C: The Art of Deception

Continuing the theme of “as Karlsson goes, so go the Sens,” there was Game 4, which ended in a 1-0 victory for the Senators thanks once again to Karlsson. Setting up for a one-timer, Karlsson fooled the Bruins defenceman into thinking he was taking the shot but instead fired a slap pass to Bobby Ryan who slipped out of cover to Rask’s right and banged the puck past him.

It is no coincidence that the Sens have won each of the games in which Karlsson has recorded a point in the series. Good players can do many things, but the mark of a superstar is the ability to take control of a game and will his team to victory – something Karlsson has done on numerous occasions.

Turning the Tables

Heading into the playoffs the dominant storyline of the Senators-Bruins series wasn’t that Ottawa swept the regular season series, but that the numbers overwhelmingly favoured Boston. Truthfully, the Bruins were better than the Sens in many categories (namely the power-play, penalty kill and Corsi), but thus far they’ve been beaten at their own game.

The Senators are operating at 23.1 percent with the man advantage (Karlsson has one power-play point), they’ve killed off 81.8 percent of penalties and hold the edge in 5-on-5 Corsi For at 50.57% – figures that rank better than the Bruins. While his contributions to the special teams have been somewhat minimal, his impact on the possession game has been outstanding.

His CF% of 60.27 at 5-on-5 is the best of any player in the series and a clear indicator of why the Senators have been successful (and, consequently, why the Bruins have struggled when he is on the ice). Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said as much when talking about Ottawa’s superstar, indicating he was one of the main reasons the Sens were leading in the series.

Whether you’re a fan of advanced analytics or the good old-fashioned eye test, there’s no denying Karlsson’s dominance in this series. While the offence hasn’t revolved exclusively around Karlsson – Bobby Ryan, for instance, has had a coming-out party – it’s safe to assume that the make-up of this series would be very different without Karlsson playing at this level.

Advanced stats courtesy of corsica.hockey