It appears that the San Jose Sharks are moving in the right direction with the recent acquisitions of forward Nick Bonino and goaltender James Reimer through free agency. While these two veteran players add depth and experience to an ailing club, it would be misguided to suggest that the Sharks are in a position to make a postseason run in the 2021-22 season.
That’s not to say it’s impossible. It certainly is not. As we all witnessed with the Montreal Canadiens this past season, anything can happen. However, the one player who must step up for the Sharks is Erik Karlsson. After being traded to the Sharks from the Ottawa Senators as part of a blockbuster deal in 2018, he has massively underperformed in several important dimensions of his game.
Let me explain.
Karlsson has been plagued by several injuries over the last eight years. These have undoubtedly affected his ability to perform at the highest level.
Not that it’s much of an excuse, but it’s important to draw out the injuries that have brought Karlsson to this point in his career. There’s no telling how things would have turned out had he managed to stay healthy these past three seasons. One has to wonder if he would have helped the Sharks bring the Stanley Cup to the Bay Area. It’s hard to say.
- 2013— Karlsson underwent a major procedure after he tore 70 percent of his Achilles heel. At the time, he had already won the Norris Trophy, and he was believed to be among the best players in the NHL. Then Senators’ head coach Paul MacLean said the following about the injury: “He’s playing 30 minutes a game, a Norris Trophy winner, arguably the best player in the League. It’s obviously a big loss — but like every injury, it’s somebody’s opportunity. We have to find out who that’s going to be.”
- 2018-19— Karlsson was forced to sit out 29 games during the 2018-19 season due to a severe groin injury. As if missing over a third of the season wasn’t enough, he aggravated the groin injury during the postseason that same year. He was forced to sit out Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues. And it was that game that bumped the Sharks out of the running for the Stanley Cup.
- 2019-20— The 2019-20 season did not get much better for Karlsson. Having just come off the groin injury, he ended up breaking his thumb during a game against the Winnipeg Jets in February. The injury resulted in the defenseman having out the remainder of the season.
- 2020-21— And then there is this past season. Karlsson sat out a number of games with another groin injury. It was mentioned by him and the Sharks organization that this particular groin injury was not the same as the one that sidelined the veteran defenseman for much of the 2018-19 season. (From “Erik Karlsson’s timeline for return pushed back by Sharks,” Mercury News, 2/23/2021)
The silver lining to Karlsson’s resume of injuries is that this is the first offseason as a Shark that he will not have to undergo some kind of injury-related procedure. It is currently unknown if this means anything, but this is an opportunity for the two-time Norris Trophy winner to prove that he can still play elite hockey.
Despite the injuries mentioned above, Karlsson is, by far, the highest paid player on the Sharks roster, pulling in $11.5 million per year. If an organization is willing to dish out that kind of cash, there is an expectation that he will be reciprocating that value. But he hasn’t. And he isn’t getting any younger.
Karlsson has been trending way down the past three seasons, and he is highly replaceable. With a projected wins above replacement (WAR) at 10 percent, he is contributing like a sixth of seventh defenseman — if that. Even though he hasn’t been performing well, the Sharks’ coaching staff have still been giving Karlsson an average of 24 minutes per game over the last three seasons. It’s clear that they can’t justify benching a player who is eating up so much of the team’s cap space.
The defenseman has been virtually non-existent on the defensive side of things. An even strength defensive number of zero is unimaginable for a player like Karlsson. His special teams play has also been abysmal. A lot of this subpar play could be attributed to the injuries mentioned above, but I don’t think so.
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The one thing about Karlsson’s game that has been solid is his even-strength offensive production. If he can produce offensive numbers despite injuries, there is no logical reason why he can’t be producing on the defensive side, too. He has always been an offensive, puck-moving defenseman. And this part of his game has not waned. With 17 goals and 90 assists for 107 points over 160 games with the Sharks, it’s clear that Karlsson still has something to offer.
The Sharks will need Karlsson to be the player they paid for if they look to have a legitimate shot at becoming one of the top contenders in the league again. As far as what he has brought to San Jose thus far, it hasn’t been worth the money. He has to find a way to turn things around and contribute in a way that makes the Sharks difficult to play against.
But I haven’t give up on Karlsson just yet. He is only 31 years old. There is still a lot of hockey in him, should he be able to stay healthy and play less porous defense.
As with many youngsters who grow up in the Midwest, CG played a lot of hockey. His love and appreciation for the game is why he’s here, writing for The Hockey Writers, covering his two favorite teams: the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens. But he writes other things, too, including a novel entitled Project: Sleepless Dream. You can find him on Twitter @CGHockeyWriter.