Erik Karlsson has always generated an infuriating debate amongst hockey observers, where the “old school” — i.e. Molson-filled and incontinent old Canadians who somehow fell out of a duck blind and into a TV studio — could never reconcile Karlsson’s style of not eating pucks regularly and his desire to get into the offensive zone. The “new school” always pointed to the fact that whenever Karlsson was on the ice, his teams spent markedly more time in the offensive zone than in the defensive, unquestionably a good thing to any mind where logic might sprout, thanks largely to Karlsson’s unparalleled mobility and vision. He was one of the best players of the past decade, and one of the most enjoyable to watch even beyond what his two Norris Trophies would suggest, and yet, because he didn’t let his ribs become paste thanks to blocking shots the entire hockey world wouldn’t warm up to that fact.
Sadly, the crusty hockey watchers had no use or patience for numbers, and they always had an out in that Karlsson’s teams generally sucked. “How good could he be if the Senators never go anywhere?” they bellowed between beer farts, or as a beer fart, depending on the day and time. Even when Karlsson was dragging a pretty dead-ass Sens with him, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and a crew of flunkies to within a whisker of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final with 18 points in 17 games, and also doing absurd shit like this, it didn’t win over everyone, somehow.
Karlsson being above the Senators ruled him out from being part of their rebuild, and shipping him to San Jose in the summer of 2018 was seen as Karlsson finally joining a team that was worthy of him. The Sharks were a 100-point team the previous two seasons and were only two years removed from a Final appearance themselves.
But anyone who looked even slightly beneath the surface knew that the Sharks would only get a swing or two at it with Karlsson. Their core was old and declining. The acquisition of Karlsson was basically pushing all the chips into the middle when they were short-stacked, hoping to catch a hand. Everything would have to go right.
And it almost worked. Even while playing essentially a cardboard cutout in goal thanks to Martin Jones’s wrong-chalice-speed deterioration, Karlsson on one leg was a big reason they got to the conference final. But eventually, Karlsson could barely play, and sometimes not at all, while Jones was still being attacked by bees in net. They couldn’t overcome the eventual-champion Blues.
And that’s as good as it’s going to get for Karlsson. The Sharks have since lost Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton in free agency, and Evander Kane might be headed to the exit door soon too. They have at most three players under 25 worth giving a flying fuck about. They were awful last year and they’re not much better this year, and their GM is correctly talking about starting the whole thing over.
Karlsson understandably feels a little crossed over this, as he signed a max-length deal of eight years with the Sharks after that conference final appearance. He’s already had to endure the start of one rebuild in Ottawa, and he doesn’t think he has the time for another one, and he may be right.
No one made Karlsson sign that deal, and any informed observer could have predicted that the Sharks were in for a meeting with the cliff quickly at the time. Yet that was Karlsson’s last, and only, chance to sign for the bag, and the Sharks were desperate to give it to him. Karlsson had just packed up and moved to a new team the year before, and maybe didn’t feel like doing it again in free agency.
The difference this time around though is that Karlsson is not the force he was. He’s not even good, or at least hasn’t been this year. He’s been getting clubbed in the metrics all season, and has seen his points-per-game basically cut in half since last season. Some of that might be attributed to knocking off some rust as Karlsson missed the last month of last year and the Sharks didn’t even make the bubble, which meant he hadn’t played in about 11 months. But that could only explain away a fraction of it. It’s hard to believe that at just 30 Karlsson could be over the hill, but he’s also been in the league 11 years and has dealt with major injuries to his achilles and groin.
Which makes any solution that much harder. The Sharks would probably love to move his $11 million cap hit, but with a flat cap it’ll be next to impossible to find a taker, especially if Karlsson is leaking oil and billowing smoke. And there’s still six years to run on that deal. Karlsson’s running out of time to prove this season is an aberration before the deadline.
Which means Karlsson’s legacy might just have to be how he changed the game, which more than enough writers and analysts will never give him credit for. At first, Karlsson’s “Death From The Blue Line” attacking game was seen as everything wrong, but now every team wants a Karlsson. That’s why the Avs value Cale Makar the way they do. It’s why the Lightning let the leash off Victor Hedman. Look at any of the contenders this year, chances are you[‘ll find someone trying to play Karlsson’s game. Defensemen aren’t just asked but expected to wheel themselves out of trouble now with their feet and join in the offensive zone. And given how fast the game has gotten, it’s just about the only option most times.
You could argue that Karlsson has been the most pivotal player in this era of hockey. Sadly, his teams have almost never risen to that level with him. Which will always be used against him.