Ottawa Senators

Erik Karlsson has nothing and everything left to prove

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 19: Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) looks on during the warmup of the NHL regular season game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens on March 19, 2017, at the Bell Centre in Montreal, QC. (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire)
Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire

The Erik Karlsson debate no longer pivots on whether he is the NHL’s best defenseman. He is. The debate asks whether he is the NHL’s best player.

Karlsson led the above-average Ottawa Senators to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final last season with a 53.39 Corsi For percentage and 18 points in 19 games, all while playing on a pair of hairline fractures in his left foot.

He shored up a defensive game that he told FanRag Sports last season was a legitimate deficiency (despite his apologists’ denials) by playing more responsibly and better positionally in his own zone. He finished second in the NHL with 201 blocked shots (probably not necessary), while still accounting for 33.5 percent of his team’s offense through points, and more via the defensive attention he drew.

Karlsson didn’t win the Norris Trophy last season due to an extraordinary season from San Jose’s Brent Burns, but he will win the Norris again. He finished fifth in voting for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

So what’s left for Karlsson to accomplish? Winning more trophies would be a good start. Karlsson has already won the Norris twice, but the ultimate measure of success in the NHL, fair or not, is how much his team wins, which could in turn help him win a Hart Trophy.

That goal is mined with challenges.

Karlsson had surgery on his left foot in June to repair the aforementioned fractures. The initial timetable for his recovery was four months — which would have had him back in time for the start of the 2017-18 season. But there is some question as to whether that timeline will hold, and there is no telling what sort of shape he’ll be in after the surgery, or if there will be any setbacks.

“There’s some question right now whether he may be fully recovered by the opening of the season,” Postmedia’s Ken Warren said in an interview on FanRag Sports’ Natural Hat Trick podcast on Monday.

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That matters greatly for a team that made the playoffs by the skin of its teeth last season, edging the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning by four points. If you conducted an informal media poll of expectations this season, many would project Tampa Bay to make the playoffs and Ottawa either to miss or battle for the Eastern Conference’s final berth.

It’s not fair to ask Karlsson to shoulder that entire burden. The Senators’ roster has significant deficiencies, including the lack of a true No. 1 center and depth on defense. This also isn’t the NBA, where one player can disproportionately impact the game, as Cleveland’s LeBron James does by playing 37.8 minutes per game. But Karlsson did log a team-high 26 minutes, 50 seconds of average ice time last season (fourth in the NHL), and no team with the possible exception of Edmonton and Connor McDavid is more dependent on one player for its success.

“This team runs through Erik Karlsson, so if Erik Karlsson isn’t at the top of his game then the hopes for the Senators are not as good,” Warren said.

Karlsson has two years left on his contract and is eligible to sign an extension next summer that should make him the NHL’s highest paid defenseman.

“[Team owner] Eugene Melnyk should probably have a blank check and just give it to Erik Karlsson and tell him to fill it out,” Warren said. “He is the best defenseman in hockey. He proved last year that he can play both ends of the ice and be dominant at both ends of the ice … as well as score the highlight goals and assists.”

Karlsson will likely earn that payday no matter what the Senators do this season. But if he wants the ultimate measure of respect, Ottawa must at least maintain a consistent playoff presence.

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