Erik Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks as one of the best defensemen the NHL had seen in possibly a decade. With two James Norris Trophies, the Swedish blueliner was one of three defensemen in the 21st century to win the title multiple times.
Before joining San Jose, Karlsson only had one season producing under .7 points-per-game, which were his first two years in the NHL. His incredible run of form included five seasons with at least 15 goals, three 70-plus point seasons, and an iconic performance in the 2016-17 postseason where he carried the Ottawa Senators to the Eastern Conference Final.
But his time in eastern Canada, and now San Jose, has been plagued by injuries. Karlsson has not played in a full NHL season since 2015-16, and has slotted into just 77 percent of games since joining the Sharks. This is not ideal, considering he’s the league’s highest paid defenseman and takes up $11.5 million of cap space through 2026-27.
Meanwhile, 2021-22 has been possibly Karlsson’s best start to a season in the Bay Area. With eight goals and 26 points in 33 games, he’s had the most goals and points per game among Sharks defensemen in a remarkable bounce-back year. He is a massive part of the team returning to postseason contention. But, now, the team’s hopes of making the postseason have taken a massive blow as Karlsson will be recovering from wrist surgery over the next month and a half at least.
Karlsson’s Injury and Immediate Impact
The official statement from the team reads: “The San Jose Sharks announced today that defenseman Erik Karlsson underwent successful surgery to repair a small muscle tear in his left forearm at Kaiser Permanente in San Jose on Monday. Injuries of this nature can vary in their recovery time, but it is expected that he will be reevaluated in mid-March.”
At best, the Sharks will be without their star defenseman for another month and a half. Of their next 16 games, 12 of them will be against teams with more standings points. The team will be taking on better teams, including key games against divisional opponents, without their best defenseman of the season. San Jose has been defeated in four of their last five games, against the Seattle Kraken and top Eastern Conference clubs.
Karlsson has been stellar this season. The team controls expected goals 5.7 percent better with the 31-year-old on the ice at even strength, which is the second-best impact by a San Jose defenseman behind Jacob Middleton. He’s the 21st-best defenseman in the league for this metric, narrowly ahead of other defensemen who have large roles on their respective teams such as Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, Mark Giordano, and Aaron Ekblad.
While I would obviously not say Karlsson is better than those defensemen, it shows the importance of his presence on the Sharks. His pairing with Middleton this season was 25th in the league, among those with 125 minutes played together, at controlling expected goals. The pairing controlled 56 percent of expected scoring together.
Together, Karlsson and Middleton averaged scoring three expected goals per 60 minutes, which is the 16th-best offensive pairing in the NHL so far this season. The Sharks will be lacking offense and 23:00 quality minutes of play per-game as they enter an incredibly tough stretch.
Ryan Merkley’s Minutes
With the Sharks losing their best offensive defenseman this season, giving more minutes to a young, mobile, and offensive-leaning defenseman would seem to be the best option. After all, the team did commit to such a talent in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
Ryan Merkley, 21 years old, is an offensively gifted defenseman with a goal and assist in the NHL during his two stints with the club so far. But after being forced into a top-four role with Karlsson’s absence, he’s shown rookie mistakes that have prompted being scratched from the lineup. He did slot back in, after Mario Ferraro was injured and could not face the Carolina Hurricanes.
Even when Ferraro returns, I still feel Merkley’s upside should be prioritized over playing the likes of Nicolas Meloche and Radim Simek.
But, defensive critiques are totally valid for the 21-year-old. His most glaring error before being scratched in Washington came in the second period on a poor pinch that directly led to a goal for the opposing team. While the rookie’s team was already down three, a play like this is not acceptable with half the game remaining.
Merkley’s offensive production will still be developing at such a young age. Through his small sample size in the NHL, his pairings with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jaycob Megna have only generated about two expected goals per 60 minutes. While that’s more offense than replacements like Simek or Meloche, it’s not an incredible amount and his offense has faltered the last few games.
However, one thing I want to make clear is that benching Merkley solely because of defensive deficiencies is not fair to him or the team. It’s not holding veteran players to the same standard as Merkley. In the same game that Bob Boughner criticized Merkley’s defensive play, Simek made an overly-aggressive play at the defensive blue line to allow the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first goal, and Brent Burns was easily beaten wide for the third.
Recently, Burns has been on the ice for five of the last seven goals against for San Jose at even strength. He’s playing massive minutes against top competition, but at a certain point Boughner will need to reel in his minutes, and make sure the veteran can be effective in his top-pairing role.
Merkley’s great offensive production in the junior ranks and American Hockey League (AHL) shows he will develop into a great offensive threat when given time to adjust to the level of play. He should be given a similar leash to that of the team’s veterans.
Depth Scoring Covering for Karlsson’s Absence
Thankfully, the Sharks have been getting the scoring needed from the bottom part of the lineup. This will be critical, as the playmaking and goal scoring Karlsson added to the team’s lineup was massive for a roster that boasts few elite, offensively talented forwards.
Most recently, fellow Swede Jonathan Dahlen has been the most impactful Sharks forward. After 14 games of recording just two assists, the rookie has come to life. With three goals and an assist in his last three games, he has been part of the Sharks’ improving top six.
Since returning to the lineup full-time after battling injury and illness, Rudolfs Balcers has been stellar. The Latvian winger had over a month off, but has recorded a point in four of his five games since slotting back into the lineup. The offensive depth provided from Balcers and Dahlen has given the Sharks more flexibility to play their two best forwards, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl, together.
But, the Sharks will need more production from their bottom-two lines. Especially their third line, which plays huge minutes without much scoring potential. Obviously, Matt Nieto, Nick Bonino, and Andrew Cogliano are primarily used for their defensive abilities, but the three forwards combined for two goals since Jan. 8, with minimal impacts on even-strength offense at all.
Personally, I would like to see Noah Gregor resume a top-nine role. The incredibly snake-bitten forward finally got his goal against the Washington Capitals, after being shutout in his last 50 shot attempts. The speedy winger now sits on the fourth line, where he received four minutes less of ice time than he got previously. Besides Meier, Hertl, and Burns, Gregor generates the most shots on goal for the team each game.
The Sharks will need contributions from the bottom part of their lineup to support the likes of Meier and Hertl, who have been shut down as of late by the top defensemen on opposing teams like Victor Hedman, Mackenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad, and Jacob Slavin.
Although depth scoring was an immense problem earlier in January, recent results should give the team more confidence that their depth can chip in on offense.
Next Stretch of Divisional Opponents
After facing the Lighting again, the Sharks have four consecutive games against divisional opponents. Those games are critical for San Jose, as there is just a four-point gap between fourth and seventh in the division.
In order to be effective in those key matchups, the Sharks will have to see their depth scoring continue to flourish, and reel in the minutes played by Burns, so that he can be an effective force throughout the game. What do you think of the Sharks without Karlsson? Let me know in the comment section below!
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!