Erik Karlsson is having a pretty amazing season. The Ottawa papers are writing stuff like this:
Just think of the great ones: Bobby Orr, Doug Harvey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Paul Coffey.
Not to mention Red Kelly, Chris Chelios, Tom Johnson, Rod Langway, Doug Wilson and Scott Niedermayer, all among the more accomplished defencemen to play in the National Hockey League.
Heady company, indeed, especially for a 21-year-defenceman who is only in his third NHL season.
However, that was the company that Erik Karlsson found himself in after Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk reached for hyperbole on Monday and predicted that Karlsson would “go down in history as one of the great defencemen of all time.”
Hilariously, Karlsson goes on to say that you can’t judge a player on one season, a quote that probably made his agent as unhappy as the Melnyk quote made him hapy.
Karlsson has scored 15-51-66 and is running away with the scoring lead for defencemen. As it so happens, I’ve been thinking a bit about assists and defenceman offence lately. It’s interesting stuff. I went through Karlsson’s ES assists this year and I think they can be pretty easily broken down into four groups: a) plays where Karlsson was trying to pass for a scoring chance, b) plays where Karlsson was just putting the puck on net, c) plays where he was moving the puck across the blue line and d) hilarious assists awarded for no appreciable offensive play. I’ve taken pictures of his contributions – lets go through them.
Plays where Karlsson was trying to pass for a scoring chance
Karlsson sees Da Costa back door – they’d actually just tried this but Da Costa hadn’t been in a good spot to pull the trigger and sent the puck back out to Karlsson to re-set things. Karlsson makes the pass, Da Costa pulls the trigger.
Karlsson sees Spezza back door and makes a nice pass through to him. Spezza scores.
Karlsson finds Jared Cowan in front of the net in overtime to win the game against Buffalo.
Karlsson finds Spezza in what I suspect is a set breakout for the Senators – note the Senators player skating along the offensive blue line, pulling the Devils defenceman away from the boards and opening up space for Spezza to skate through once Karlsson makes the pass. I counted this one as a play for a scoring chance, because he was obviously trying to hit Spezza but without someone like Spezza on the other end of the pass, this play goes nowhere.
Karlsson skates the puck up ice and pulls up as he crosses the blue line. The two Senator forwards with him skate forward towards the Ranger net, pulling the two defencemen with them. Karlsson makes a really nice play to buy a little time while Milan Michalek catches up; he then puts a nice pass on his stick which he buries.
I watched this one a zillion times and couldn’t figure out whether Karlsson makes the pass to Alfredsson in the slot or whether it bounced off Eberle. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Alfredsson proceeds to bury the wrist shot. I probably could have also classified this as a pass along the blue line – the Oilers have just finished serving a penalty and haven’t yet adjusted to having five skaters on the ice. Someone really ought to be putting some heat on Alfredsson.
Classic NHL quality broadcast here. I’m not sure why it looks like a snuff film but understand that this game was blacked out due to TSN having national rights. I treated this as a play rather than a shot because it sure looked to me like Karlsson identified Michalek in front of the net and was shooting for the deflection.
This is the kind of pass that gets a guy a reputation. Karlsson, with the puck behind his own net, sees Mihalek at the far blue line and plays a bounce pass of the wall right on to the tape of Michalek’s stick. Absolutely incredible play. Of course, Michalek still has to finish, which he does, undressing a defenceman one on one and then abusing the goaltender.
Another one that was a bit tough to call. Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He made a nice move to get out of his own end, skated the length of the ice and then dished it to Spezza at the blue line. Again, this probably could have been classified in the plays along the blue line. Spezza faked a shot and then went back door to Alfredsson.
Karlsson slides in behind Spezza, who drops him the puck. He goes back door to Alfredsson, who puts it away.
So that’s ten assists where he’s trying to make a play. I think I was pretty generous in doling out credit, as you’ll see below.
Plays where Karlsson was trying to put the puck on net
Wrist shot on net, Michalek and Spezza bang away at it and the puck goes in.
Karlsson puts a wrist shot towards the net. It hits Zack Smith, bounces off the goalie and Kaspars Daugavins scores off of the rebound.
Karlsson puts a slap shot towards the net that hits the Capitals’ John Erskine. The puck then bounces to Eric Condra, who is as surprised as anyone else, and puts it away.
Karlsson takes a slap shot from the point that is saved by Ilya Bryzgalov. The puck bounces to Bobby Butler in front of the net, who puts away the goal.
Karlsson takes a wrist shot into a crowd in front of the net. The puck rattles around, Nick Foligno kicks it to Chris Neil and Neil scores.
Karlsson takes a wrist shot as he’s rubbed out on the boards. The puck is saved and played behind the net by the goalie. The Duck defender gets his stick lifted before he can touch the puck and Nick Foligno puts the puck out front to Chris Neil, who scores.
Plays across the blue line
Karlsson throws the puck across the blue line to Filip Kuba, who shoots it. Chris Neil deflects it in for a goal.
Karlsson kind of knocks the puck over to Foligno to escape from pressure. Foligno skates into the slot, shoots and misses the net. The puck caroms around to Jared Cowen, who has pinched in. Cowen shoots, it hits a Penguin and goes in.
Karlsson throws it across the blue line to his defensive partner, who fires it towards the net and it goes in.
Karlsson isn’t trying to do anything
After an icing, the Flyers clear the zone and go for a change. You can see Jagr pressuring Karlsson. Karlsson moves it ahead to Spezza. Four touches of the puck between Spezza and Alfredsson occur before the Senators score.
The Panthers try to clear the zone but shoot the puck off of Karlsson’s foot. Colin Greening picks up the loose puck and scores.
Karlsson MAYBE touches the puck in his own end in a fight in the corner with a couple of Rangers. Michalek comes back, plays the puck off the boards to Spezza, the Senators break out and Spezza finds Michalek trailing the play for a goal.
This one is my second favourite. Karlsson, who isn’t even facing the Flames’ net, touches the puck ever so briefly before Jesse Winchester grabs it and escapes the Senators’ zone. A quick pass later, the Senators have a goal and Karlsson an assist.
The Senators win a faceoff immediately after scoring a goal. The puck comes to Karlsson, who passes it through the middle to Zack Smith. Smith directs the puck over to Daugavins, who bursts across the Oilers line and scores a goal from a terrible spot on the ice with a wrist shot.
Karlsson skates out from behind his own net and passes the puck over to Gonchar. You can see Spezza breaking out in the photo. Gonchar puts it to Spezza after Spezza finds some space and Spezza does the rest of the work.
Karlsson saves a puck from coming out and knocks it deep. Alfredsson is there and he finds Spezza in the slot, who makes with the goal.
With the Sabres’ net empty, Karlsson wraps his arm around the Sabres’ player with the puck and effectively brings him down. He actually does the whole “lift your arms in the air thing as if they’ve been there all along and you couldn’t possibly have tackled a guy.” Eric Condra picks up the puck and scores the goal.
What does any of this mean?
I’m going to come to that. Tomorrow. Unfortunately, before you can get to the interesting part, you need to do the proof of concept (or at least proof of possibility) work and this is that. The key takeaway from this should be that, of his 27 ES assists this year, about ten of them actually involved Karlsson making a play with deliberate intent to create a scoring chance, as opposed to a play like a pass across the blue line, clearing his own zone or throwing it into the mixer in front of the net.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that half of the assists that were actual plays have come during the past three weeks. If it feels like the hype meter’s been turned up on Karlsson lately, that’s probably one of the reasons why.