Karlsson at the forefront of Norris Trophy debate
Senators blueliner's standout season making him worthy of league-wide attention
|With 77 points, Sens defenceman Erik Karlsson is leading all NHL blueliners in scoring by a wide margin. It's one of the reasons he's a top contender for the Norris Trophy (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images).
And Senators goaltender Craig Anderson minces no words when he talks about the massive impact Erik Karlsson's many talents — fully unleashed in a system that emphasizes speed above all else — have had during Ottawa's surprising run to a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"He's been outstanding for us," Anderson said of a blueliner who has emerged as a serious contender for the James Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the National Hockey League's top defenceman. "When he's on the ice, he makes things happen."
No defenceman in the league owns a more impressive set of statistics than the 21-year-old Swede, a first-round pick by the Senators (15th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. His 77 points (19 goals, 58 assists) are tops among all NHL blueliners and it isn't even a race — next in line, both with 52, are Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers.
Only three other defencemen in league history have held a margin of at least 20 points over their nearest pursuer in a given season. All of them — Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and Denis Potvin — are Hockey Hall of Famers. Karlsson is also within striking distance of producing the most prolific season by a Swedish blueliner in NHL history, a distinction currently held by seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings (80 points in 2005-06).
You'll also find Karlsson's name atop the leaderboard among NHL blueliners in shots (252), even-strength points (49), goals (16) and assists (33). He also rates second in power-play points (28) and five of his goals have been game winners. Proving that he's not all offence, the native of Landsbro, Sweden, tops all league blueliners in takeaways (64).
But Karlsson's value to the Senators goes way beyond the numbers. Anderson, for one, will tell you there is no defenceman in the NHL who means more to his team in terms of its success.
"We wouldn't be where we are right now without him," Anderson said following Senators practice earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "Hands down, he is one of the main reasons why we sit where we sit (in a playoff position). I can't say that for any other defenceman in the league right now, that their team is so dependent on one player.
"Not that we rely on just one player but in the grand scheme of things, he is our Sidney Crosby or whatever you want to call him for our team."
Karlsson hears this kind of praise and is clearly flattered by it all. But with a straight face, he'll tell you that there is only one statistic he concerns himself with in every game — the two points that are awarded for a victory.
He has also proven to be a perfect fit for the style of play head coach Paul MacLean has gotten his team to embrace since the start of his first season behind the Ottawa bench. "Going fast," as MacLean likes to put it, is right in Karlsson's wheelhouse.
"The way the game is played now, you have to have a lot of speed," said Karlsson. "But you also have to have a lot of creativity, and you've got to be able to create opportunities for yourself. All the teams (in the NHL) play pretty solid defence and (MacLean) came in with that philosophy, that we needed to generate a lot of speed and create a lot of opportunities and not just sit back and hope the other team makes mistakes. It's been working pretty well for us."
Lest you think Karlsson is all about offence, Anderson points toward his plus-minus rating, which currently stands at +19 — a huge jump from the -30 he sported a year ago. It's particularly impressive given that the Senators' goal differential as a team is currently +13.
"With Karl, look at his plus-minus," said Anderson. "It's around +20 and Chara is (+33) and he's on the best team in the league for goal differential (the Bruins are +64). And we have a +13 differential as a team and (Karlsson) is +19. Right there, that shows you he's a competitor both offensively and defensively.
"The biggest thing I've seen in his game is that he's a two-way player. If he makes a mistake, he's the first guy back and he makes a big play defensively."
Around the boards
MacLean is leaning toward giving Ben Bishop the start in goal against the Bruins on Thursday night in the Senators' regular-season home finale at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). The 6-7 Bishop has been sidelined since Feb. 24 with an upper-body injury but has practised with the team the last two days. "If he's healthy and ready to go, we'll probably play Ben tomorrow," said MacLean. "We just want to make sure that everybody gets ready to play. Ben needs to play, so we want to make sure he gets in a game before (the playoffs)." Then the plan would be to start Anderson on Saturday, when the Senators close out their regular schedule in Newark, N.J., against the Devils (3 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... Defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who sat out Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes with a minor lower-body ailment, was back on the ice this morning and is expected to be good to go against Boston ... The Bruins have already announced that goaltender Tim Thomas, centre Patrice Bergeron, Chara and injured blueliner Johnny Boychuk won't dress against the Senators.