New Senators coach Paul MacLean approached Erik Karlsson early in the season and told the defenseman he might play him as many as 30 minutes a game—as long as Karlsson was not "playing 14 minutes for us and 16 minutes for them."
"He was on for 23:27 against Boston," MacLean says of Ottawa's 1--0 win on Feb. 28 in which Karlsson scored on a power play, "and all of it was for us."
Since breaking into the league in 2009, Karlsson has been one of those blueliners who, during the course of a game, often would give both teams a chance to win. But he has tempered his high-wire act, tamped down his ever-present urge to lug the puck and stopped auditioning for the hardest-shot competition in favor of simply hitting the net. In the process Karlsson has become the backbone from the back end for the surprising Senators (34-25-8), who are shockingly stalking the Bruins for the Northeast Division lead.
Karlsson is tied for sixth in NHL scoring, with 15 goals and 51 assists in 66 games, putting him on pace to join the Capitals' Mike Green (76 points in 75 matches in 2009--10) and the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom (80 in 80 in '05--06) as the only defensemen this century to average at least a point per game. If he finishes in the top 10, Karlsson would be the first defenseman to do so since the Red Wings' Paul Coffey did it in 1994--95. He has thrust himself into the Norris Trophy conversation, even if the discussion of his candidacy seems as overcaffeinated as Karlsson did in his first two NHL seasons.
Certainly there is heft to Karlsson's offensive numbers. He leads defense scoring by 22 points over the Panthers' Brian Campbell and could become only the fourth NHL blueliner to finish 20 points ahead of the next most prolific defenseman (chart, page 32). But the Norris Trophy is not Xbox; the award was designed to honor the "defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position." If the Professional Hockey Writers Association sticks to the standard, Predators captain Shea Weber, who trails Karlsson by 26 points, should be favored. The 6'4", 234-pound Weber, an offensive force and an imposing defender, takes better care of the puck than Karlsson does. (Weber was Norris-worthy last season, but the writers, maybe out of habit, chose Lidstrom for a seventh time despite a career-low -2 rating.) MacLean considers Karlsson "near the top of the middle third" of NHL defensemen as a one-on-one defender. "But at the start of the year," he adds, "you would have put him in the bottom third."
Handicapped by a stick-figure frame—"I was always the smallest and thinnest guy," says the 21-year-old, a six-footer who weighs 175 pounds after a big meal—Karlsson is not a crease clearer, the principal reason he is used sparingly on Ottawa's penalty kill. Karlsson averages only 34 seconds on ice per game when the Senators are a man down. There are, of course, more subtle aspects of defense. "He's usually playing with our [Number 1] line, and we're going up against top lines," says center Jason Spezza, who ranks fourth in the NHL with 72 points. "[He's] putting up flashy offensive numbers because he's able to control the puck against the best lines in the game. For me, that's good defense."
When Karlsson arrived in Ottawa in 2009--10 after being selected 15th overall in the '08 draft, his balletic skating was his most conspicuous skill. He still seems to hover over the ice—no defenseman has a quicker first stride or walks the blue line as effortlessly in search of shooting lanes—but his creativity, which MacLean has nurtured, has supplanted his wheels. In a 5--2 win on Feb. 22 against Washington, Karlsson made a 120-foot slap pass off the right boards directly to Milan Michalek's tape, a feat of Euclidian calculation that led to the second Senators goal. Karlsson looked like he was playing Nok-Hockey, not NHL hockey.
Karlsson was a horrendous -30 last season, which put him in the running for the virtual Green Jacket. (He ranked 889th among 891 players in plus-minus, ahead of only the Canucks' David Booth, then with Florida, and Senators teammate Chris Phillips.) Now he is in the running for some official hardware, a testimony to his newfound consistency on a rebuilding team that is years ahead of schedule.
"I look at the numbers, yeah, but mostly I look at the standings," Karlsson says. "It's about getting into the playoffs and being ready."