San Jose Sharks forward Melker Karlsson could paraphrase actor Liam Neeson’s famous scene in the movie Taken. “I’m no Pavel Datsyuk nor Joe Thornton, but I do have a very particular set of skills, skills that I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for opposing defensemen.”
OK, maybe Karlsson isn’t a nightmare for opposing blue liners, but the 26-year old Swede does possess a very particular set of skills that makes him extremely valuable to the Sharks. No, he is not the top-six forward that head coach Peter DeBoer referred to him as early in the season, but he is one of those incredibly valuable forwards that can be effective on any forward line one through four. All the different monikers apply to Karlsson, he’s a Jack of all trades, Swiss army knife, glue-guy and spark plug. Despite not scoring as much as he did as an NHL rookie a year ago, Karlsson’s high hockey IQ and incredible work ethic help provide San Jose with some of the depth they have lacked in recent years.
The Melk Man Delivers
Karlsson will never be mistaken for a high-end skill forward. As a professional in Sweden, Karlsson never lit up the Swedish league offensively. He’s not the stick-handler, passer, nor finisher that fellow European free-agent signee Joonas Donskoi has become for the Sharks. That said, Karlsson is an above-average skater and does have a few slick moves up his sleeve. He is Swedish after all, it’s in their blood. Undersized at 6’0″ 180, the Melk Man is surprisingly tough to battle with in the corners with a never give up attitude. You wouldn’t think someone that visibly slender could bounce off the punishing hits that he takes, but with strong balance on his skates, Karlsson frequently spins off checks while maintaining puck possession.
After spending much of his rookie year on the Joe Thornton line, some might feel disappointed that Karlsson has been frequently on the fourth line this year. However, the reality is that he’s still been a key source of depth scoring. A year ago Karlsson finished with 24 points in 53 games playing frequently on that top line. This season in 59 games he has 17 points while playing most often on the fourth line. His possession numbers are right around 50% and he’s a plus-4 on the season compared to a minus-3 last season.
Karlsson’s Versatility is Key
Not only has the production still been good given his role, but Karlsson has been contributing on special teams. For most of the second half he’s been a fixture on the penalty kill and in recent games he filled in on the second power-play unit when Donskoi was injured. Again, the versatility is incredibly valuable. He can play on any line at even strength and contribute on both special teams units without looking out of place. The hockey IQ allows him to read the game well from a defensive standpoint on the penalty kill and on the man advantage he knows where to be on the ice and is a solid distributor. Karlsson may not have much power on his wrist shot, but he is extremely accurate with it and has a nose for the net to chip in those garbage goals.
Against the Kings on Monday night, a win that clinched the Sharks a playoff spot, Karlsson finished with a goal and assist and was plus-2 in a little under 13 minutes of ice time. The goal and assist were byproducts of a shift by shift effort where Karlsson truly was “hard to play against”. Usually this is a saying reserved for big, bulky, tough guys, but despite his lack of size, Karlsson is much tougher to handle than a guy like Ryan Reaves in St. Louis or Kyle Clifford for Los Angeles. Karlsson and Tommy Wingels were flying against the Kings as they sandwiched Patrick Marleau for the most consistent line of the night. Perhaps this new line combination will stick around for awhile. All three can be streaky players at times, and perhaps a hot streak is right around the corner as we approach the postseason.