Sharks’ Erik Karlsson Capitalizing on First Injury-Free Season in San Jose

The San Jose Sharks expected elite play from Erik Karlsson when they traded for him in 2018. The organization coughed up Dylan Demelo, Rudolfs Balcers, Chris Tierney, and Josh Norris to the Ottawa Senators, as well as an unprotected 2020 first-round pick, which became Tim Stützle.

No question, the Sharks lost this trade, but so far in 2021-22, Karlsson has played his best hockey since he moved to the Bay Area. He is still not performing up to the level the organization had hoped, but we’re beginning to see the silver lining.

Karlsson’s Offensive and Defensive Production

Karlsson has been offensively productive this season compared to 2020-21, with 22 points (8 goals and 14 assists) in 28 games. These are the same numbers he put up last season but in 52 games. If he continues to hit the scoresheet at this pace, he should pot another 8 goals and 15 assists by the 52-game mark.

Erik Karlsson San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Of course, offensive production is not the main indicator of a defenseman’s ability. Karlsson is a respectable minus-2 compared to last season’s minus-18 rating. These stats are not worth a Norris Trophy, but they are incrementally better than the previous two seasons, and his incremental improvement is all the Sharks can reasonably expect from the 12-year veteran.

The organization still has confidence in the Swedish defenseman, who is averaging 23 minutes of ice time. Of course, they’d rather see him play than sit the third-highest-paid player in the NHL, but they also didn’t seem to hesitate to make Marc-Edouard Vlasic — worth $7 million AAV until the end of the 2025-2026 season — a healthy scratch against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 4 (from “Sharks’ Marc-Edouard Vlasic scratched vs. Detroit Red Wings,” Mercury News, Jan. 4, 2022).

However, Karlsson’s improved play might also be thanks to 2021-22 being his first healthy season since he was traded to San Jose.

Karlsson’s Health Issues

Karlsson’s ability to perform at a high level has been challenged by injury. For much of the previous eight seasons, he has battled some kind of ailment, and many only surfaced after he arrived in San Jose. Call it karma or bad timing. Here are a few of the issues Karlsson has had to push through:

  • 2013— Karlsson had a major procedure after he tore 70 percent of his Achilles heel. He was coming off a Norris Trophy season and was believed to be among the best players in the NHL. At the time, Senators’ head coach Paul MacLean had this to say 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. If missing over a third of the season wasn’t enough, he aggravated the injury during the postseason and was forced to sit out Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues. That was the 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. After recovering from his groin injury, he broke his thumb in a game against the Winnipeg Jets in February. He missed the remainder of the season.
  • 2020-21— Karlsson sat out several games with another groin injury. However, he and the organization mentioned that it was not the same injury that sidelined him for much of the 2018-19 season (from “Erik Karlsson’s timeline for return pushed back by Sharks,” Mercury News, 2/23/2021).

Unfortunately, he has not remained injury-free this season. Karlsson sustained an upper-body injury against the Red Wings earlier this month. He is not expected to be out long-term, but it speaks to the continued adversity he has faced since arriving in San Jose.

Optimistic About Karlsson’s Future

Karlsson is having one of the most productive seasons of his post-Senators career. Whether he can finish strong will depend on if he can avoid injury. He can easily put up another 22 points, but he can only do that if he is on the ice and feeling good.

It’s unlikely he’ll win another Norris Trophy in his career — he is well beyond his prime — but he can still help the Sharks make a push in the postseason. I think he’ll make a huge splash when he returns from this most recent upper-body injury.