Erik Karlsson was the best defenceman in the NHL this season, or more specifically the best defenceman to complete the season (Sorry Mark Giordano). Karlsson’s 66 points lead all defencemen, his 30 power play points are tied for first, and his 292 shots on net placed him first among defencemen and fourth among all skaters. It’s a side of Karlsson we’ve come to expect and that he still posts those numbers in a season some consider disappointing is a testament to just how dominant he is. Especially when you take into account the obstacles Karlsson had to overcome to get there.
Hopping over hurdles
For Karlsson this was his first full season since having his achilles all but severed at the hands (feet) of Matt Cooke, where he said he felt 100% healthy. While Karlsson was still able to dominate while dealing with his injuries, the health of the Sens captain was a good sign going into the season. Ultimately that was where his luck ran out. Even though Karlsson was operating at 100% his defensive partner wasn’t, and with Marc Methot out, the Sens were forced to play Karlsson with a merry-go-round of defensive partners.
He spent over 300 minutes paired with Chris Phillips, another 200 with Mark Boroweicki, and over 100 with Jared Cowen. To say the quality of his teammates was lacking would be polite. Of 229 defencemen with over 300 minutes played this year Phillips ranked 207 in Corsi For%, and 227 in Corsi Rel% (definitions). Cowen and Boroweicki didn’t fare better slotting in at 163 and 184 in terms of CF%. For comparisons sake Karlsson ranks 54 in CF% and 13th in Corsi Rel%.
That wasn’t enough to stop Karlsson though. Even saddled to what can aptly be described as third pairing, or even replacement, level defenders Karlsson was able to post 28 points in 40 games, good for 5th among defencemen. Not only that but Karlsson was still able to post a positive CF%, something just one other Senator managed in that time frame.
A return to form
What Karlsson managed to do in the first half of the season was impressive given the circumstances. What Karlsson did in the second half was nearly unfathomable. First in points by a defenceman, 7th in the league. His 54.76 CF% ranks 18th among all defenders, his 5.72 CF Rel% 14th. His near 27 minutes a night were the fourth most in the league, all while keeping the best goal differential in the league.
What Karlsson did was more than just numbers. The young captain was just that, a captain; in every way imaginable. He led the Senators back from a 14 point deficit and into the NHL playoffs, the first team in history to do so. He closed a 19 point gap on the Pittsburgh Penguins and passed them to guarantee his team a spot in the post-season. He called out his team’s play on the ice when he needed to, and he gave back to the fans that supported him.
Karlsson can’t play defence
This is the part of the article where I tackle the wonderful myth that Erik Karlsson can’t play defence. Of the three nominees Karlsson ranks second in shot CA/60, ahead of P.K. Subban. In terms of CF Rel% Karlsson again slots in the middle, this time ahead of Drew Doughty. If the argument is it’s the quality of chances that matter Karlsson still competes, once again sliding ahead of Subban and close behind Doughty.
Possession not your thing? That’s fine, when it comes to takeaways Karlsson takes the cake and it’s not even close. He beats out Subban by 30 and leads Doughty by 47. Worried about giveaways? P.K. Subban lead the league, Karlsson was 4th and Doughty sits 12th; it’s a risk that comes with the players and Karlsson is no more a risk than the other two. Even physicality is closer than you might expect: Doughty leads them both with 152 hits but Subban and Karlsson sit near each other with 97 and 92 hits.
The point is that if your concern about Karlsson is his defence then you either haven’t been paying close enough attention or you should be just as concerned about the defensive play of Subban and Doughty because when matched up against other elite defenders in the league not only does Karlsson equal their play in the defensive zone, but he dominates his peers on offense. Put simply Erik Karlsson is the best defenceman the NHL has to offer and should be a lock for the Norris Trophy.
Journalism student at the College of Sports Media. Avid Sens Fan. Host of the Coast to Coast Podcast.