Breaking down Erik Karlsson’s playoffs with Sharks

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Heading into an eventual Game 3 win against the St. Louis Blues, Erik Karlsson was due.

OK, now he wasn’t due for something along the lines of scoring an overtime game-winner after fellow Sharks player Timo Meier got away with a hand pass, but Karlsson was due.

Through 16 games during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Karlsson had not been able to score a goal for the San Jose Sharks. Few would complain about his overall production, what with his 13 assists in those 16 games, but even acknowledging that defensemen take lower-percentage shots, you had to think that Karlsson was starting to get at least a little bit frustrated.

Karlsson ended up with two goals during the Sharks’ controversial 5-4 overtime win against St. Louis, and you wonder if the goals will really start to flow in now, starting with Friday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream). If so, the Sharks stand a great chance to improve on their 2-1 lead in Round 3.

That goal-drought-breaking Game 3 serves as a nice excuse to take a look at Karlsson’s overall work during his first – and possibly only – playoff run with the Sharks.

Health questions

Karlsson literally limped into this postseason, so it was only natural to wonder how effective he could really be for the Sharks. After San Jose’s Game 1 win, Karlsson explained to Pierre McGuire that things definitely started rough for him, but that his health has improved as the postseason’s gone along.

Despite Karlsson’s assurances, there have been times when it’s been really difficult to shake the impression that the star defenseman isn’t at 100 percent. It’s something that Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos and others speculated about, and while some of that might merely be speculation, it’s tough not to read too much into any slow pivot, seemingly timid approach, and other bit of body language.

Not needing to be Superman

Remember Karlsson’s epic playoff run from 2016-17, when Karlsson nearly willed the Ottawa Senators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, with help from friends like Mark Stone and Craig Anderson? Plenty of hockey fanatics already knew that Karlsson can be otherworldly at his peak, yet for those who stubbornly stood by as naysayers, it was eye-opening and mouth-shutting.

Interestingly, when you look at the simplest numbers of all, Karlsson’s not that far off from that run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2016-17, Karlsson generated two goals and 16 assists for 18 points in 19 games. During this run, Karlsson has two goals and 13 assists for 15 points in 17 games.

But it’s clear that the Sharks aren’t asking him to shoulder the same burden as he did with Ottawa. Most obviously, Karlsson’s seen his ice time shrink from 28:08 per night during that Senators run (when he seemed to be dealing with a lower-body injury as well), to a still-impressive but less Ryan Suter-like 25:34 TOI average with San Jose.

Brent Burns is the big reason why Karlsson’s numbers are robust, but not outrageous … and the Sharks are really leaning on Burns, whose ice time average is at a startling 28:53 per night, up significantly even from his work during previous playoff runs.

When the Sharks landed Erik Karlsson in that trade, the tantalizing thought was that, as two right-handed defensemen, Peter DeBoer could have one of Burns or Karlsson on the ice during almost every shift of a game. That’s pretty close to coming to fruition during this deep run.

Ups and downs

Back during his Ottawa days, Karlsson looked impressive from a possession standpoint, and outright outrageous when you considered his stats relative to his teammates.

He often fit that bill during the regular season, yet Karlsson’s fancy stats have been a little less fancy during the playoffs. According to certain metrics at Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson’s actually been on the wrong end of chances more often than on the positive side.

That’s really not such a bad thing overall, though.

For one thing, Karlsson and Burns are facing tough competition, and by logging such large minutes, they’re keeping lesser players from getting swamped in ways that could really put the Sharks in a bind. So maybe Karlsson hasn’t always been off-the-wall amazing like he’s been in the past – quite plausible if he’s nursing an injury – but, to put things mildly, he’s worth the rare mishap.

***

Overall, Karlsson’s been a gem for the Sharks. Perhaps they might grumble at the occasional mistake, emotional flare up, or bit of detached-looking body language when Karlsson’s on the ice for an opponent’s goal, but they’re likely ecstatic with the ultimate results.

Now, if you’re a team pondering a long-term deal with Drew Doughty-type money? Then maybe you’re more concerned by every wince and slow turn.

That’s not the Sharks’ problem, and if Karlsson really heats up, he could create even bigger headaches for the Blues.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.