When a star player returns to a team after a controversial trade, you’re bound to scold your hands on some hot takes. Knee-jerk reactions only get more dramatic if there are easy – though not necessarily profound – ways to criticize that player.
So, it’s no surprise that people are jumping to some dopey conclusions as Erik Karlsson returns to Ottawa to face the Senators as a member of the San Jose Sharks on Saturday afternoon.
You see, many are latching on to Karlsson’s relatively modest offensive numbers, as the splendid Swede currently has two goals and 15 points in 26 games. Tying the likes of Zach Werenski and Drew Doughty for 15th place in scoring among defensemen, obviously, is unacceptable.
Speaking of Doughty, Postmedia’s Michael Traikos trotted out an … interesting take in comparing the two defensemen in mid-November:
In nine seasons with the Senators, Karlsson led the team in scoring four times and finished second in three others. There was a reason for that. If he didn’t, no one else would.
In San Jose, his job description has changed. On a team that has so many offensive options, Karlsson is no longer the No. 1 offensive weapon. With Brent Burns leading the Sharks with 21 points, he might not even be the team’s No. 1 offensive defenceman.
Ah yes, scoring less as a defenseman than Burns. That’s almost as sick of a burn as telling John Tavares or Auston Matthews that they’re the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second-best center.
While there might be something to Karlsson experiencing some tweaks to his role with the Sharks (it’s certainly true that he’s never played with other defensemen anywhere near the level of Brent Burns or Marc-Edouard Vlasic), it’s far from the only take that might have you scratching your head.
As seemingly always, there are vague rumblings about the locker room being a happier place, with explanations rooted in “picking up on little things” and “body language.”
Some venture the argument that the Senators are finally getting to practice more this season now that their minutes-munching superstar is in San Jose.
The most baffling tendency is to harp on scoring, though.
If you’ve ever gotten into a debate about Karlsson’s Norris Trophy merits, you’ve likely heard someone try to brush off his numbers. The popular (inaccurate) refrain is that Karlsson is “a glorified forward who can’t play defense.”
Remarkably, those who are straining to criticize Karlsson now are using his points against him. I’d wager good money that some of those peoples mocking (still pretty good) point totals are the same people who claimed that his offensive production didn’t matter.
Digging into Karlsson’s stats on even a surface level reveals that he’s still a fantastic defenseman.
Karlsson was frequently a possession monster in Ottawa, particularly compared to Senators teammates whose numbers were often under water. You’d think that he’d be less dazzling on a Sharks team with better players, yet Karlsson isn’t just retaining fantastic individual possession numbers; he’s also putting up great stats relative to his teammates in San Jose.
Actually, you could make a reasonable argument that Karlsson’s been just as good – if not better – than he had been in recent seasons with the Senators. Check out this side-by-side chart based on a wide array of stats, via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool:
As you can see, Karlsson’s possession numbers have skyrocketed. While his scoring numbers aren’t there yet, one stat seems promising: his expected goals are virtually identical to last season’s figure. That, to me, is another way of driving home the point that the offense will climb as the bounces go his way.
(If that’s too fancy for you, his shooting percentage is just 2.7 this season, far lower than his career average of 6.8.)
Long story short: Karlsson is still really, really good. In my opinion. he’s long been too easily dismissed as an all-around player.
Karlsson himself admits that it will be “different and weird” to play a game against the Senators in Ottawa.
One can see the awkwardness in how he’s addressed the media. Earlier this week, Karlsson basically ended a press conference as it began when someone brought up Ottawa. He played nice during this press conference – almost too nice – although he really shut things down (understandably) when a reporter asked about the Monica Caryk/Melina Karlsson/Mike Hoffman situation.
You can see him abruptly no-comment that at the end of this clip:
As awkward and uncomfortable as some moments will end up being for Karlsson, the Sharks, and the Senators, it’s tough to imagine anything being quite as bumbling as his critics grasping at straws to knock him down a peg.
Luckily, most aren’t falling into that sort of trap, including plenty of Senators fans and also some of Karlsson’s former teammates.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.