Need for speed
Erik Karlsson showed flashes of his former self in exhibition games, but the regular season will be a long, grinding test
At the start of training camp, Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that he didn’t feel exactly like his normal, pre-Achilles surgery self.
“It’s not what it used to be, but at the same time, it’s better than I thought it would be,” he said with surprising candour.
“I’ve been able to do the things I normally do during the summer and only time will tell. There’s a number of things that are different, but I have to get used to that. I still feel I have all the strength that I need. It’s a little bit about connection down there, but it shouldn’t be an issue.”
While the vague references to lingering issues created a mild stir among Senators faithful, there was nothing during training camp or the pre-season schedule to suggest Karlsson couldn’t re-establish himself as one of the NHL’s best — if not the best — offensive catalysts from the blueline.
At times, he carried the puck out of his own end with ease, sprinting past forecheckers, simplifying breakouts. He showed some of his old offensive magic inside opponent’s zones, both on the power play and in even strength situations.
We didn’t see many dynamic end-to-end rushes, but it’s not like Karlsson needed to showcase himself in that regard to make the team. If he can be faulted for anything, it’s for being a tad too casual in playing the puck inside his own zone, which has more to do with eye-hand timing issues than with anything related to the Achilles.
Like most established players, it’s clear the length of training camp and ultimately meaningless exhibition games wore on him. When asked about his relative health earlier this week, Karlsson said that he already talked about it enough. Pressed further, he said, “I feel great.”
We’ll take him at his word.
Now that the games are being played for real, the big question is whether Karlsson can handle the grind of playing more intense games and come close to approaching his sensational Norris Trophy winning form of 2011-12. Back then, Karlsson finished with 19 goals and 59 assists, a whopping 25 points ahead of Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell in scoring among defencemen.
Karlsson, as most of us recall, was off to a similar pace last season when Matt Cooke, then with the Pittsburgh Penguins, sliced Karlsson’s Achilles with his skate while finishing a check on Feb. 13.
The typical recovery time is 6-8 months, but Karlsson returned for the final two regular season games in late April. It was a stunning recovery, but Karlsson was a shadow of his former self in the playoffs, exposed by the Penguins in the second round.
It’s now been almost eight months since the Cooke incident, but players who have had similar surgery in the past have often struggled to immediately regain their form.
The comfort for Karlsson is that he is playing with familiar defence partner Marc Methot in even strength situations. The addition of Bobby Ryan could make the power play more potent, giving Karlsson the opportunity to pile up additional points with the man advantage.
Ryan says the team’s goal should be to cash in on at least 20-22 per cent of power play opportunities. Last season, the Senators clicked at only 15.9 per cent, perhaps not surprising considering both Karlsson and Jason Spezza missed most of the season. During Karlsson’s Norris Trophy-winning season, the Senators cashed in on 18.2 per cent of their chances.
At the same time, however, there could be an adjustment period as Patrick Wiercioch jumps up to fill the void left by veteran defenceman Sergei Gonchar as the other defenceman on the first power play.
That creates additional pressure for Karlsson, but he has never shied away from taking more on-ice responsibility.
When he was at his best two seasons ago, Karlsson delivered something that no other defenceman in the NHL could match. Senators fans are keeping their fingers crossed that he can be what he used to be.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen